Special-Needs Scholarships Bill Is Moving Ahead in Ohio

Published March 1, 2008

Most parents of children with special learning needs have few educational choices. They can make use of the services offered by their local public school or, if they are financially well-off, can send them to a private provider of special-needs education. If they can’t afford a private school and their public school program is inadequate, they’re out of luck.

That situation may change soon in Ohio, where legislators are considering a bill to provide scholarships to some children with special learning needs to attend the public or private school that best suits them, even if that school is outside of their home district.

The bill–the Special Education Scholarship Pilot Program–has been introduced in both the House (H.B. 348) and Senate (S.B. 57). At press time, the House bill had eight co-sponsors, and House Speaker Jon Husted (R-Kettering) has expressed support.

“It has absolutely strong support right now, and we’re confident that this bill will attract broad and bipartisan support in the General Assembly this spring,” said T.J. Wallace, interim executive director of School Choice Ohio, an organization based in Columbus. “There are indications that this bill could move in the spring.”

Capped at 3 Percent

If passed, the bill would provide scholarships ranging from $7,000 to $20,000 per year, depending on the nature of the child’s disability.

According to the Ohio Legislative Services Commission, the per-pupil amount will be more than the state provides in aid for special-education students in some districts, but less than what some districts provide. The legislation limits the total number of scholarships available each year to 3 percent of the total eligible population.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, about 260,000 students statewide have an Individual Educational Program (IEP), a legally binding document stating which services a special-needs student will receive. This is about 14 percent of the 1.8 million students in Ohio’s public schools.

Up to 8,000 scholarships would be offered per year statewide if the program is enacted.

Governor Vetoed Bill

This is not the first time Ohio legislators have considered such a measure. Essentially the same program was included in a large budget bill that passed the Ohio General Assembly in June 2007, but Gov. Ted Strickland (D) used his line-item veto power to strike out the provisions.

During his 2006 gubernatorial campaign Strickland said he opposed voucher programs. In his 2007 State of the State address, he expressed his opposition to the Ohio EdChoice program, a statewide voucher program launched in 2005. News reports at the time indicated Strickland wanted to use his line-item veto to end the EdChoice program but could not do so.

Wallace notes that with a cap of nearly 8,000 students statewide, there is little chance more than a few students would leave any district’s public schools. He said the financial impact on nearly all districts would be minimal.

Similar Scholarship

The Special Education Scholarship Pilot Program would work very much like the state’s Autism Scholarship Program, which was established in 2003 and provides scholarships allowing some families to send their autistic children to the public or private school that best meets their needs.

Wallace said approximately 400 students received autism scholarships in 2006-07 and nearly 700 are using them during the current academic year.

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