Ohio Passes Scholarship Bill, Scuttles Another

Published March 1, 2007

In the closing hours of the 2005-2006 session of the Ohio General Assembly, more students in poorly performing schools gained access to expanded educational choices. A scholarship program for disabled students, however, failed to reach the floor for a vote.

More Students Eligible

On December 19, the Ohio House of Representatives approved H.B. 79, changing eligibility requirements for participation in the two-year-old Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship Program. The state Senate also passed the bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Robert Taft (R) before he left office January 8.

When first enacted in 2005, the Ohio EdChoice Program gave scholarships to students enrolled in schools that for three consecutive years have been on “academic watch” or in “academic emergency,” allowing those students to attend another public or private school of their choice. Under the new law, the scholarships will be available to students whose schools are on watch or in emergency for two of any three consecutive years.

Since 2005, elementary school students have received scholarships of $4,250 apiece; high school students have received $5,000 scholarships.

Last summer, the Ohio Department of Education identified 99 schools whose students would be eligible for the scholarships. Approximately 2,600 students, of the 14,000 eligible, currently are using the scholarships.

David Hansen, president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a nonpartisan policy research organization based in Columbus, Ohio, said students at 200 schools will now be able to use the scholarships.

Disabled Students Left Waiting

On December 6, the Ohio House’s Education Committee passed H.B. 431, a bill to create a Special Education Scholarship Program to give disabled students access to alternative public or private educational programs. A floor vote was not scheduled before the end of the session on December 22, effectively scuttling the bill.

“I support school choice in general, but I believe it has particular use for the special-education committee,” said state Assemblyman Jon Peterson (R-Delaware), the bill’s primary sponsor.

Peterson, who led the way in creating the state’s four-year-old Autism Scholarship Program–a voucher program for autistic children statewide–said representatives of the disabled community asked him to expand it to students with other disabilities. Scholarship programs for disabled students, Peterson said, have already proven successful in Florida and Utah.

Support Was There

Peterson said H.B. 431 would have passed the entire House if given a vote.

“It was late in the lame duck session to consider the measure,” Peterson said, who also noted making law is “an incremental process.” He said he was pleased with this first attempt.

Hansen had a different perspective.

“The bill ran into resistance from teacher-controlled Republican senators, and so Speaker Jon Husted, a strong supporter of school choice, pulled the measure,” Hansen said.

Vicki Murray, a Buckeye Institute visiting scholar who explained the provisions of the bill to several Ohio legislators, said it “would have built on the proven success of Ohio’s landmark autism scholarship program” by expanding “options for thousands of students and strengthening existing special education services.

“Not adopting the scholarship program was a real missed opportunity for families in the Buckeye State,” Murray said.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) writes from Pennsylvania.