Together, We Can Do It: an exclusive interview with U.S. Senator George V. Voinovich

Published October 1, 2002

“Together, we can do it.”

That was U.S. Senator George V. Voinovich’s motto when, at the request of local community leaders, he resigned the job of lieutenant governor of Ohio and took over as mayor of the bankrupt City of Cleveland in 1979.

Applying the maxim to the problem at hand, Voinovich developed a series of coalitions and public-private partnerships that halted the downslide and shifted the city on to a path back to prosperity and renewed civic pride. By the time Voinovich stepped down in 1988, Cleveland was thriving and he had been named one of the nation’s top mayors. Two years later, he was Governor of Ohio.

Voinovich’s motto—or its obverse, “On our own, we can do nothing”—should perhaps be the motto of every state legislator, since new proposals can be enacted into law only after they have been lifted over a long sequence of procedural hurdles by the majority votes of different groups of legislators. This process guarantees that only measures with broad and deep support pass readily. Measures with narrower or shallower support require active legislative champions to maintain the majorities necessary at every hurdle.

Voinovich became the legislative champion for school choice in January 1995, when he announced a school voucher plan as part of a package of statewide education reforms. The Ohio Legislature chose to limit the school choice plan to the troubled Cleveland Public Schools system and approved the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program later that year.

For his efforts in achieving that victory, Voinovich rightly earned the title of “father of the Cleveland school choice program.” Since 1996, some 4,300 students have taken advantage of the program to seek a better education in private schools.

Government should work just as hard with the tax dollars it gets as taxpayers have to work to earn those dollars, Voinovich believes. The way to do this, he contends, is to keep government spending down and ensure that government programs and systems are well-managed and deliver the best services for their dollar. Voinovich has used his motto of “Together, we can do it” to encourage federal agencies and Ohio government agencies to work together, both for efficiency and to provide better services.

Voinovich’s first stint as an elected official was as a member of the Ohio House of Representatives from 1967 to 1971. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Ohio University in 1958 and graduated from the College of Law at Ohio State University in 1961. Currently two-thirds through his first term in the U.S. Senate, Voinovich spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Although several governors have tried to get voucher programs approved, only you, Tommy Thompson, and Jeb Bush have succeeded. What strategy did you pursue to achieve passage of the Cleveland voucher program?

Voinovich: The most important thing was that I created the Governor’s Education Management Council to look at reforms that needed to be undertaken in Ohio to improve our education system and to make a greater difference in the lives of our youngsters. As part of that, we put together a school choice task force, called the Commission on Educational Choice. On that task force, I had individuals who had differences of opinion, including one in particular who was opposed to vouchers. I wanted to have a representative group of people to do an objective review of whether or not they thought school choice was something we ought to put on our smorgasbord of education opportunities.

When the Commission on Educational Choice came back, they recommended school vouchers as an option they thought would provide an opportunity for children—particularly those from low-income areas—to get out of low-performing schools and better their educational opportunities. Based on that recommendation, we introduced several pieces of legislation. They didn’t go very far. They were lobbied heavily against, as you can imagine, by the various groups opposed to school vouchers.

Then, in 1995, I introduced a comprehensive program for improving schools, and a voucher program in Cleveland was part of it. I had originally asked that the voucher option be given to any school district in the state as a choice, to give them a chance to try it out, if they so desired.

But, finally, the only way we were able to get it done was to restrict vouchers to just the Cleveland area. Some of the legislators there were being pressured very heavily for it. The rationale was that the Cleveland system was in such bad shape and taking so much money out of the state that we ought to give them this opportunity to see if vouchers would make a difference. So we put it in place, and the first class of students went in in 1996 … and, of course, the rest is history.

At the time I did it, I got an enormous amount of flak from a whole lot of people, but my view was that it was constitutional. The money wasn’t going to the school, it was going to the individual, just like the GI Bill. I also felt this was a reasonable educational program we ought to be trying out. The problem in government today, right across the board, is that we are not willing, as businesses, to try new things. Too often, the reason we don’t try new things is because there are strong lobbies trying to preserve their turf. I just felt the voucher program was something we ought to look at, and, needless to say, I was very pleased when the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional.

Which groups were involved in getting the voucher legislation approved?

Voinovich: To be very candid with you, the people who were on the original Commission on Educational Choice were very, very effective because they were highly regarded as being objective people who were concerned about educational improvement. I’d be less than candid if I didn’t say that the leader of that group was David Brennan, who really spent a great deal of time promoting the voucher plan in the state legislature along with his colleagues. And of course, we had some legislators, too, who believed in it as strongly as I did. For example, people like Bill Batchelder and a few others really made it a cause célèbre and helped me carry the ball across the goal line.

I also had to personally get involved in it. It was the only time that year that I went to the respective caucuses—both the House and Senate Republican caucuses—to really appeal to them on the importance of moving forward with the voucher initiative and giving me the support I needed to get it done.

Does your support for parental choice come out of your philosophy or did it come out of your experience as mayor of Cleveland—or perhaps both?

Voinovich: I’ve always felt that having more options was the best thing. My children were in Montessori school—a store-front Montessori school, in fact; they also went to the Cleveland public schools; and a couple of them went to private school for high school.

I have always been a strong supporter of the non-public school system in Ohio, because I felt they were doing a terrific job. The non-public schools are a good yardstick in terms of what they are able to get done compared with what the public school system gets done.

If you look at the record, I think Ohio does more to support non-public schools than any other state in the nation. I started that effort with our Auxiliary Services Program when I was back in the legislature in 1966. On the average, our non-public schools in Ohio get about $750-$800 per student for auxiliary services and for reimbursement for state-imposed costs. And it’s all constitutional.

There’s also the old competition issue: If you’ve got a product and there’s no other product available, sometimes you don’t promote the product and do as well with it as you could. But with competition, you start to pay more attention to how well you do because customers have a choice.

Speaking of Cleveland, one of the things we did when I was mayor of Cleveland—and before that when I was a legislator—was to create a new governance model in Cleveland where the mayor appoints the superintendent and where the school board members are appointed from a categorical list that’s put together from people of different areas of responsibility.

Clowes: Now that you’re at the federal level, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions. First, is any significant school choice legislation likely to be approved for the District of Columbia?

Voinovich: Let me just say this: Number one, I believe that this is a state issue, and not a federal issue. I’m not for the federal government coming in and foisting their ideas about education upon the states. I voted against the recent education bill because I’m very against federalizing education in this country. Education is primarily a state and local responsibility. It certainly wasn’t envisioned by the framers of our constitution as a federal issue, and so I have strong feelings in that regard. This is a state matter, not a federal matter.

In terms of the District of Columbia, I think the District ought to decide what they should do. For example, people like Donald Graham of The Washington Post, who really cares about education, helped me get the College Access Program passed for the District. That’s a program that provides tuition subsidies for District residents to attend college. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled vouchers constitutional, I’m sure we’ll be encouraging the District to look at them.

My second question is in reference to other federal education programs like Head Start and Title I. Audits seem to indicate we’re not getting very good mileage out of these programs, even though they’re well-intentioned.

Voinovich: I don’t agree. Another thing I did in Ohio was to make Ohio the leader in Head Start in the United States of America. Every eligible child in Ohio has a slot in early pre-school education, if the parents want the child to be in it. If there’s any problem with Head Start, it’s because we are not getting the kind of teachers that we need for those early childhood programs.

To address that, I got legislation passed to provide scholarships for people who go into early childhood education. I also got legislation passed to increase requirements for the people who are teaching in that area. By 2005, I think, everybody teaching in early childhood will have to have an Associate’s degree.

I think the early childhood education has been a very, very good experience for children and their families. Families must be involved, and it’s had a very big impact on the families. For instance, every year the governor gives away awards in conjunction with the Ohio Newspaper Association. In two instances, I gave the award to former Head Start moms who got inspired with the program, went on to get more education, and ended up with Ph.D.s. Can you imagine—Head Start moms?

I’m a very strong supporter of 0-3 education, too. I think the most neglected area in education in this country today is 0-3. It’s the area that has the most impact on a child’s development. In terms of Title I, I’ve encouraged school superintendents and others to take Title I money and put it into pre-school and 0-3 education, because, frankly, by the time some of these children get help from Title I, it’s too late.

What I’m trying to say to you is that the area that can make the most difference in the lives of children today in the United States of America is 0-3 education, and it’s the area that gets the least amount of resources.