Special-Ed Scholarships Face Uphill Climb in Ohio

Published May 1, 2009

For the third time in two years a bill to create a publicly funded scholarship program for students with disabilities has been introduced in Ohio. The legislation faces a tough road.

The measure, introduced on February 10 by state Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R-Cuyahoga Falls), would create a Special Education Scholarship Pilot Program providing scholarships of up to $20,000 to disabled children in grades kindergarten through 12.

Recipients could use the funds to attend alternative public or private special-education programs in fiscal years 2012 to 2017. Enrollment would be capped at 3 percent of the state’s total disabled student population, about 8,000.

The program would join several existing school choice efforts in Ohio, including the statewide EdChoice voucher program for all children in failing schools, the Autism Scholarship program, and Cleveland’s citywide voucher program for low-income children. The autism program would not conflict with the special-education initiative, as autistic children would be able to enroll in either program but not both.

Long Shot

Despite the proliferation of choice in Ohio, the special-education legislation faces long odds, with the state House of Representatives having turned majority Democratic after the November elections. Even in more politically accommodating times the program ran into trouble. In 2007 it was rolled into the state budget but line-item vetoed by Gov. Ted Strickland (D). Last year the plan fell short of becoming law by one vote in the House.

“I think it faces an uphill battle when it goes over to the House side,” said Chad Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio, a choice advocacy group. But Aldis isn’t without hope.

“A lot of Democrats have been listening to parents,” Aldis said.

Coughlin, the bill’s sponsor, agrees it’s a long shot. He said he’ll likely try the 2007 strategy to maximize the proposal’s chances, rolling it into the state budget and forcing Strickland to veto it.

Long-Run Optimism

While Coughlin is tentative about the program’s chances in the short run, he is optimistic special-education choice will eventually become law.

“There is long-term hope for it,” Coughlin said, citing broad popular support. “If anyone should have educational control, it’s the parents of children with special needs.”

If the legislation is eventually enacted, Aldis doesn’t think it will happen until the fall, after the state works through its many challenging economic problems. That would give the bill several months to gather support.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.