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Published: Wednesday, 3/30/2005

Ohio House GOP advocates school-voucher expansion

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Key House Republicans are recommending a dramatic expansion of Ohio's school-voucher program to about 18,000 students who live in school districts where test scores are lagging.

The plan outlined yesterday by House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) would provide vouchers to seven times more students than the proposal that Gov. Bob Taft released in February.

"It provides more opportunities sooner," said Mr. Husted, who said the proposal is based on a bill introduced March 15 by state Rep. Dixie Allen, a Dayton Democrat.

That measure - which legislators would insert into the state budget bill - would provide state funds for 18,000 students in K-12 to receive vouchers, which they would use to pay for private school tuition. The expanded program would begin with the 2006-2007 school year.

Eligible students would live in school districts that the state labels the prior school year as in "academic watch" or "academic emergency" based on proficiency test scores and graduation and attendance rates.

Ohio has 34 school districts in academic watch, including Lima and Sandusky city schools. There are four districts in academic emergency, none of them in northwest Ohio.

The plan that House GOP members are backing also would make charter school students eligible to receive vouchers, Mr. Husted said. This school year, the state is using about $12 million in tax dollars to help 5,623 students from low-income families in Cleveland to attend private schools. The voucher is up to $2,700 for students in ninth and 10th grade, and up to $3,000 for K-8.

Mr. Taft's plan would set aside $9 million for 2,600 students in K-8 school buildings where at least two-thirds of students do not pass the reading and math proficiency tests for three consecutive years. If those guidelines were in place now, students at 70 school buildings would be eligible, including six Toledo elementary schools: Cherry, Glenwood, Hale, Lagrange, Pickett, and Warren.

Even if the House adopts Mr. Husted's plan, the 33-member Senate will have its say.

State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said senators are debating vouchers and charter schools as they examine ways to "adequately fund public schools."

In December, 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court repeated its previous decisions that said the state's school funding system is unconstitutional because its heavy reliance on local property taxes creates disparities between property-rich and poor districts.

Five months later, however, the high court barred a Perry County judge from taking jursidiction of the case.

State Rep. Dale Miller of Cleveland, who is the No. 1 Democrat on the House Finance Committee, said Mr. Husted's voucher expansion plan puts the "cart before the horse."

"If we get public school funding so that it is working right and districts don't have to go back to the ballot every year, then we could look at something like this," Mr. Miller said.

Contact James Drew at:

jdrew@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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