Sacrificing the School Choices of 3,000 Kids Won’t Save Ohio Big Bucks

Published April 17, 2007

Ted Strickland’s first media buy in his 2006 campaign for governor of Ohio was on Christian radio stations. His commercial quoted a verse from the Book of Micah urging one “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” The candidate said those precepts had always guided him.

It is fair to ask how much justice or kindness the Democratic governor embraced recently when, in his first State of the State address, he called for eliminating the public scholarships currently enabling almost 3,000 children to escape failing public schools by transferring to the private or parochial schools of their parents’ choosing.

Strickland, who once administered a Methodist children’s home before embarking on his political career, made budgetary belt-tightening his rhetorical theme. He called for “sacrifice,” asserting that “wastefulness and giveaways can no longer be tolerated.”

Continuing his speech, Strickland then put the EdChoice voucher program at the very top of his list of targets for extinction. He spared–for now–the voucher program that has served Cleveland’s neediest students since 1995 and that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as constitutional in the 2002 Zelman decision. EdChoice scholarships were begun in 2006 to help students in other parts of Ohio.

The sacrifice called for by the governor indeed would be significant for the needy families who are using vouchers to purchase their kids decent education for the first time ever. But would their sacrifice mean big savings for Ohioans in general?

The governor’s proposed budget adds up to $53 billion.

The price tag for the EdChoice vouchers–ranging from $4,250 to $5,000 per student–is $13 million.

Eliminating those vouchers would bring, at best, minuscule savings–.0245 percent, or less than three one-hundredths of 1 percent of the state budget. Moreover, it is debatable that even that tiny sum would be an actual saving.

If the 3,000 children are forced back into the failing public schools they left, the public will have to pick up the full cost of their schooling. According to Standard and Poor’s, Ohio spent $9,029 per pupil for its 1,845,428 public school enrollment in 2004. By giving a child a voucher worth about half that amount to transfer to private school, the state arguably saves money.

Of course, the teacher unions, major contributors to Strickland’s election campaign, don’t see things that way. When the public schools lose students, they need fewer teachers. That means fewer members for the teacher unions, and diminished power for them.

In addition to kicking 3,000 children out of their chosen schools this year, Strickland’s budget plan would eliminate another 11,000 prospective EdChoice scholarships for some of the state’s neediest children.

Strickland’s attempt to stifle school choice revives the memory of Federal District Judge Solomon Oliver slapping an injunction on the Cleveland voucher program in August 1999. The injunction, sought by the teacher unions, would have turned 4,000 children away from their schools of choice the day before the start of a school year.

So great was the outcry that Oliver partially lifted his injunction just four days later so that children who previously had been in the voucher program would not be affected. That still left in limbo 400 children who were to enroll using vouchers for the first time. In November, the Supreme Court lifted the rest of Oliver’s injunction.

In his 2003 book, “Voucher Wars,” parental choice advocate Clint Bolick wrote that the injunction sought by the teacher unions had “galvanized the school choice movement like never before.”

For reasons of justice and fairness, Governor Strickland’s anti-choice foray could provoke a similar reaction.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute, a national nonprofit organization located in Chicago.