Ohio Narrowly Rejects Voucher Expansion

Published March 1, 2009

By just one vote, the Ohio General Assembly rejected a bill to create a new special-needs school voucher program that would have helped parents of students with disabilities pay for private school tuition.

The proposed Special Education Scholarship Pilot Program would have provided up to $20,000 annually for deaf, blind, and otherwise-disabled students. The proposal received a plurality of votes, 49-44, in December, but state law requires a majority of the chamber, 50 votes, for approval.

Some disabled Ohio students already benefit from the state’s five-year-old Ohio Autism Scholarship Program.

Not Meeting Needs

Too many public schools aren’t adapting to the circumstances of special-needs students, said Tisha Brady, communications director for School Choice Ohio. Other schools are so interested in mainstreaming they don’t do what special-needs students need.

“[Parents] felt it was better to have them attend a private school where the special needs would be met,” Brady explained. “For example, in one [public] school, they had the students use worksheets, but students with certain kinds of disabilities weren’t learning anything. In another [public] school, one student had Crohn’s disease and was out of school more than in it. The parent wasn’t always able to pick up the work, meaning the student fell further behind.”

Choices for Many

While some private schools don’t always do a better job than public schools helping special-needs students, Brady said, there are private schools that cater to specific types of disabilities. The voucher program, currently serving 1,000 students, helps parents place a child in the school best meeting his or her particular needs.

Thousands of students are eligible for the Ohio EdChoice Scholarship, a private school tuition voucher worth up to $5,000 per year for students currently attending a chronically failing public school anywhere in the state.

Battle Ahead

Instead of taking another run at expanding the autism voucher program when the Ohio legislature meets again, Brady’s organization and other choice advocates will likely be fighting to defend the program as it currently stands, to hold off budget cuts.

Last year, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) tried to cut special-needs funding. Brady has said he is likely to attempt a similar move again this year, as Ohio and other government entities are looking for ways to cut expenses to stay in line with declining tax revenues in a slumping economy.

But “I don’t think they can justifiably cut it,” Brady said.

Brady figures choice advocates will get help in the legislature’s other chamber, where Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland) and Sen. Jon Husted (R-Kettering), the former House speaker, have both said they support school choice and will fight any attempts by Strickland to cut the voucher programs.

Phillip J. Britt ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.