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Published: Saturday, 6/10/2006

School voucher program gets 2nd sign-up period


Ohio education officials will give students at the state's most troubled public schools a second opportunity to sign up for vouchers to attend private or nonpublic schools after the first chance at free money generated lukewarm interest.

The second sign-up period will be July 21 to Aug. 4. Vouchers are worth $4,250 annually for grades kindergarten through eight and $5,000 for high school. A list of participating private schools can be found at http://edchoice.ohio.gov.

As of yesterday's deadline, just one of every 20 eligible students statewide had signed up for the scholarships despite mass mailings, advertisements in minority and mainstream media, and community meetings paid for by the state, said J.C. Benton, an Ohio Department of Education spokesman.

But the state does not view the 5 percent participation rate as a disappointment, Mr. Benton said.

Mr. Benton cited a report that noted much lower first-year participation rates in similar programs across the country, including a 0.7 percent rate in the first year of a Milwaukee program; a 0.3 percent rate in Florida's McKay voucher program; and a 1.7 percent rate in the first year of Washington's voucher program. Participation in those programs has grown over time.

The coming 2006-07 school year is the first Ohio has expanded the voucher program beyond Cleveland to include all public schools that fell into the bottom two categories of the state's ranking system for three consecutive years: academic warning and academic emergency.

Students at 11 northwest Ohio schools qualified for vouchers:

●In Toledo, they are Cherry Elementary, Nathan Hale Elementary, Pickett Elementary, Scott High School, and Woodward High School.

●In Lima, they are Freedom Elementary, Unity Elementary, Lima High School, Lima North Middle School, and Lima South Middle School.

●In Sandusky, Mills Elementary met the criteria.

Jack Altenburger, superintendent of Toledo's Catholic schools, said he was disappointed by the low number of applications but noted that local interest increased after an article about vouchers appeared in The Blade on May 28.

As of Thursday, the Ohio Department of Education reported that 49 students from four eligible Toledo Public schools had applied.

Some Toledo parents said they were upset over some of the rules governing who can get a voucher.

Sherry Dunn said it is unfair that she will have to pay full tuition for her daughter to attend Central Catholic High School instead of receiving a voucher.

"She went to St. Elizabeth, and they said because she was in a private school already she couldn't get one," Ms. Dunn said.

Students attending charter schools, who would otherwise have to attend one of the poor-performing public schools, can apply for a voucher. But home-schooled students and those who already attend private school are not eligible.

Also, students who will start in the fall at one of the poor-performing public schools - such as in the case of kindergarten or freshman year of high school - are not eligible for a voucher.

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