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Published: Thursday, 2/10/2005

Taft program would widen school choice; budget may offer vouchers to some students in Toledo

BY JAMES DREW AND JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Under a plan announced yesterday by Gov. Bob Taft, Ohio would expand its school voucher program, currently limited to Cleveland, to elementary schools around the state and allow students to leave schools that persistently perform poorly and go to private schools.

If implemented today, 2,600 students at 71 public elementary schools, some in Toledo, would be eligible to receive $3,500 or the cost of annual tuition, whichever is less, to leave schools in which at least two-thirds of the students have failed to meet proficiency standards in reading and math for three consecutive years.

To be eligible, students must have attended that school for at least one year.

The program, "Limited Ohio Choice Scholarship," is part of the two-year state operating budget that Mr. Taft will submit to legislators today, according to leaders of the education groups who were briefed by an aide to Governor Taft.

The aide told the educators that most, but not all, of the 71 eligible schools are in the state's eight largest school districts. The eight districts include Toledo Public Schools. Educators said they were not given a list of the elementary schools where students would be eligible for the program.

If the legislature approves it, the statewide voucher program would start in the 2006-2007 school year.

The plan calls for the state to spend $9 million on vouchers during that school year.

To continue to receive vouchers to go private schools, students would be required to take tests and show improvement.

The program is based on an experimental Cleveland voucher program, but the Cleveland program would remain separate from this statewide initiative.

State Rep. Jim Trakas (R., Independence) said expansion of the 9-year-old voucher program in Cleveland to the rest of the state is long overdue.

Then-Gov. George Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor, pushed for the program because of his frustrations with poorly performing schools.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Ohio's voucher experiment in Cleveland. The majority in the 5-4 decision said the program did not violate the constitutional ban against promoting religion because parents can choose between secular and religious private schools.

In the 2003-2004 school year, the state spent $16.4 million so 5,887 Cleveland children could attend a school of their choice and an additional 2,736 students could receive tutoring.

Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said Mr. Taft's proposal would drain tax dollars from public schools.

"It would appear to be simply catering to the right wing of the [Republican] party, including ideologues who want to privatize for the sake of privatizing and don't care whether the results are better or worse or the same," he said.

Mr. Mooney said if Mr. Taft and Republican legislative leaders want to help students in "persistently failing schools" - the phrase that the governor used in Tuesday's State of the State address - then the state should put tax dollars into reducing class size, "high-quality" early childhood education for 3 and 4-year-olds, and teacher training.

In other budget issues, Mr. Taft is not expected to ask lawmakers today to again divert tobacco settlement dollars away from smoking-prevention programs. But that does not mean lawmakers won't hungrily eye the pot of money as at least a short-term alternative to cutting popular programs or approving unpopular tax hikes on cigarettes, alcohol, or electricity consumption.

"This promise says to me, hopefully, that the administration finally realizes that fully funding tobacco prevention saves lives and millions of dollars in the short and the long term," said Tobacco-Free Ohio spokesman Tracy Sabetta. "There are real, demonstrated results."

In three of the last four years, the state has diverted the annual installments from the state's $10 billion settlement with major tobacco manufacturers such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds to fill gaps in the state budget.

Lawmakers placed IOUs to be repaid beginning in 2013 in the separate tobacco settlement budget bill for the $352 million that had been earmarked for the Tobacco Use Prevention and Cessation Foundation's anti-smoking efforts, including the Stand campaign targeting youth.

The state also replaced hundreds of millions in settlement dollars earmarked for school construction and renovation projects with capital bond borrowing.

The settlement fund was left alone this year, and Ms. Sabetta said anti-smoking activists have been promised by the Taft administration that the roughly $50 billion, two-year budget he proposes today will not suggest tapping it again.

The foundation's endowment is currently $350 million and it expects more than $200 million more over the next two years.

"It's a huge pot of money," said Mr. Trakas, the Republican from suburban Cleveland.

"We'll have to decide what our priorities are. Is it TV ads and billboards or people's lives? If you can find $100 million to $200 million to actually help people rather than put together a worthy PR campaign, that could be an option. We need to keep everything on the table," Mr. Trakas said.

Part of the argument states made when suing the cigarette manufacturers was that treating smoking-related ailments taxed their Medicaid budgets. Anti-tobacco groups, however, argue that getting people to quit smoking or not smoke in the first place will pay off in the future with reduced demands for government health-care programs such as Medicaid.

Mr. Taft will propose today raising the state's cigarette tax from 55 cents to $1 per pack. Anti-smoking and health groups, however, had advocated a hike of 75 cents with the money earmarked to repay the prevention foundation fund and to expand health coverage.

Contact James Drew at:

jdrew@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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