COLUMBUS - Ohio's top education official yesterday criticized the House's proposed expansion of school vouchers as too broad, saying it may encourage students to flee individual urban schools that are performing well.
"Any district in academic watch or academic emergency is available for the voucher program," Superintendent of Education Susan Zelman told the Senate Finance Committee. "The unit of analysis is the school district, not the school building.
"We believe that could punish our urban districts who are making good progress, and also make available a voucher to schools in urban areas which may in fact be excellent schools or exceptional schools," she said.
In addition to the state's voucher program in Cleveland, Gov. Bob Taft proposed a $9 million program to provide grants to 2,600 students in failing schools statewide to attend private or religious schools.
The House expanded on that in its budget counterproposal, offering $90 million beginning in 2007 to fund grants for 18,000 students in any district considered to be failing because of test scores and attendance rates.
Ms. Zelman suggested vouchers should be reserved for students in school buildings that have been in academic emergency for three years and show no signs of progress.
She also said the grants should be awarded to low-income families, and that students who've already fled to a public charter school should not be eligible for grants to switch again.
Charter, or community, schools are publicly funded schools freed from some of the regulatory mandates of their more traditional brethren.
House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering), a proponent of school choice, said he is willing to discuss fine-tuning the proposal with Ms. Zelman, but he objected to the idea of locking charter students out of the program.
"They should be subject to the same competition as traditional public schools," he said.
"If charters are not doing a good job, then those students in those schools should be free to go become voucher students," he said. "We need an environment where we're empowering children and families to go get the education they feel is best for them."
The two-year, $51.3 billion proposal pending in the Senate provides a 2.2 percent increase to $5,283 per student in 2006 in basic aid to schools, plus another 2.2 percent to $5,399 in 2007.
In all, the budget appropriates about $7.5 billion a year for K-12 education.
Ms. Zelman said there is still insufficient data to tell whether the Cleveland voucher program, nine years after its inception, has improved student academic performance.
"The Cleveland voucher program was a pilot program," she said. "We've learned a lot about how to run a voucher program as a result of the Cleveland voucher program."
If in fact the state wants a voucher program, let's take what we learned from the Cleveland voucher program and not repeat the mistakes of the past," Ms. Zelman said.
This year, 5,623 lower-income Cleveland students in kindergarten through 10th grade have used $12 million in grants to attend private school.
The next budget would follow participating students as they progress into the 11th and 12th grades.
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