Special-Needs Scholarship Bill Pending in Ohio Legislature

Published September 1, 2008

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland’s (D) veto of a special-needs scholarship bill last year isn’t stopping supporters from making another attempt to provide scholarships for disabled students to attend the school of their choice.

A bill currently working its way through the Ohio General Assembly, SB 57, would create a Special Education Scholarship Pilot Program providing a maximum $20,000 scholarship for special-needs children in kindergarten through 12th grade between 2010 and 2015. Recipients could attend a public or private program of their parents’ choice.

The bill limits the number of scholarship recipients to 3 percent of the total number of special-education students living in Ohio during the previous fiscal year.

Sponsored by state Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R-Cuyahoga Falls), SB 57 passed the Senate on a 17-15 vote in early May along party lines, then did so again in the House Education Committee on May 28 on a 12-11 vote. The bill is slated for a full House vote this fall.

Modeled After Autism Program

The program established in the bill is modeled after Ohio’s four-year-old Autism Scholarship Program, which gives vouchers to parents of autistic students to allow the children to attend the school of their choice. In 2004, 70 students participated statewide–a number that swelled to more than 700 in the 2006-07 school year.

“Senate Bill 57 expands Ohio’s popular Autism Scholarship Program, which has enjoyed tremendous parent satisfaction, to all students with special needs,” explained Chad Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio, an advocacy group based in Columbus.

“This bill is vital,” Aldis continued, “because it would empower parents of students with special learning needs to seek out the very best education for their child–public or private. In the end, parents are better suited than a rigid bureaucracy to know if their child is learning.”

But Piet Van Lier, a researcher with Policy Matters Ohio, a progressive research organization with offices in Cleveland and Columbus, is troubled by SB 57’s similarity to the autism program. He said the autism program has a “lack of state oversight and accountability” that “restricts or discourages enrollment based on cost, severity of disability, and religious belief” and that it “seems skewed toward residents of Ohio’s wealthier school districts.

“It’s quite possible, even likely, that these problems would be replicated to some degree by SB 57,” Van Lier said. “The overarching concern is that SB 57 would divert public dollars to programs that are available to a relative few. Policy Matters feels that these funds should be used to strengthen programs that are available and open to everyone.”

Autism Study Flawed

Aldis, however, said Van Lier’s critique of the Autism Scholarship Program is flawed.

“By ignoring and misrepresenting much of the data, Policy Matters has done an incredible disservice to the students using the scholarship and has missed the point of the scholarship,” Aldis said. “It’s designed to give parents additional options, more choices, to find the right environment for their child. The fact that a particular school may not serve all students with autism is a fact with public and private schools alike. Yet this is used as evidence the program does not work.

“Furthermore, the study suggests that the participation of schools with a religious affiliation is restrictive or discourages enrollment,” Aldis noted. “Tell this to the many non-Catholic parents of children in many urban areas that see the academic performance of many inner-city Catholic schools as their child’s ticket to success.”

The autism program merits expansion, according to parents of the children involved, Aldis notes. “This scholarship will create a much larger base of eligible students, generate increased private school participation, and encourage improvements and innovations in the public schools,” he said.

“Most of all, it will give control to parents and not bureaucrats,” Aldis said. “What Mr. Van Lier often fails to mention is that whenever asked, parents using this program have always been incredibly satisfied.”

Paying for Scholarships

Under SB 57, funding would come from state and local sources. The amount ordinarily allocated to the local public school would go to the student’s school of choice, and in most cases the local school district also would transfer local tax funds to the new provider.

According to a May 27 memorandum from the Ohio Legislative Services Commission to state Rep. Randy Gardner (D-Toledo), a school district with a low percentage of state funding would transfer between $1,000 and $11,000 to a student’s chosen school. A district with a medium amount of state funding would transfer between $700 and $6,000 per student. A district with a high amount of state funding would transfer as much as $1,100, but such school districts could actually gain money in some instances because some districts are given more than $20,000 per student for those with severe disabilities.

That final element of the funding scheme is unwise, says Matthew Carr, education policy director for the Buckeye Institute, a Columbus-based policy research organization.

“The most disappointing aspect of this debate has been the willingness of the supporters to entertain a ‘hold-harmless’ amendment that would shield districts from the potential loss of funds when a student enrolls in a voucher program, because such a provision would create perverse incentives for the district schools–as they could get rid of the student and yet keep all of the funding,” Carr explained.

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

For more information …

Ohio SB 57: http://www.legislature.state.oh.us/bills.cfm?ID=127_SB_57