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Published: Thursday, 6/21/2007

Special-needs education plan faces veto

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Lawmakers have apparently fought back Gov. Ted Strickland's attempt to kill Ohio's statewide voucher program that uses tax dollars to send students in failing public schools to private and religious schools.

Now they're trying to convince him not to use his line-item veto pen to ax an expansion of the program aimed at students with learning disabilities that has been inserted into the $52.3 billion, two-year state budget.

Doug Krinsky of Westerville, whose 9-year-old son Michael is autistic, said yesterday that he believes supporters of the pilot program opened the Democratic governor's eyes in a recent meeting with Mr. Strickland.

"When we left, he said, 'You certainly know how to create conflict within me about what's the right thing to do,'•" Mr. Krinsky said.

The expansion's fate, however, remains very much in doubt.

"The governor has a very clear position on vouchers," Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said. "He is opposed to any expansion of voucher programs in Ohio. That is based on a fundamental belief that they are inherently undemocratic because they lack public oversight even though they are funded through public tax dollars."

Yesterday, advocates voiced support for a five-year pilot program redirecting existing state and local dollars to send 3 percent of Ohio's special education children to specialized private schools.

But they were preaching to the choir - Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) and the program's legislative sponsors, Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R., Cuyahoga Falls) and Rep. Jon Peterson (R., Delaware).

Aisha Saunders of Columbus said it was a constant battle to get city schools to provide services her son, Nathan, needed.

Nathan, who suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is now 19, has graduated from high school, and is majoring in child psychology at Central State University.

"They wanted to pigeonhole him to say if he graduates from high school, you should be happy," Ms. Saunders said. "That's not enough. These kids are capable. They're talented. They're intelligent, and they shouldn't be limited by economics for their education."

After stripping Mr. Strickland's budget language to eliminate the statewide Educational Choice Scholarship program, the House added language to expand the program for students with autism, Down Syndrome, hearing impairment, dyslexia, and other disabilities that affect learning.

Up to 3 percent - or about 8,000 - of those students in first through 12th grades who have individualized education plans with local schools could receive state and local taxpayer funds to attend private specialized programs. The scholarships would be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis beginning with the 2008-09 school year, regardless of family income.

The total voucher would be the lesser of the private school's tuition or the amount the state's special-education formula says schools should spend on that student, up to $20,000 a year.

Ohio's current statewide program, which paid 3,000 to send students to private school in the just-completed school year, will apparently survive because the budget contains no language on target with that program. The dollars that fund it are intermixed with other school funds, so there's no budget line-item that the governor can strike.

The special-education expansion, however, is vulnerable. The budget contains language creating the program that Mr. Strickland could veto before signing.

Mr. Strickland did not propose getting rid of Ohio's landmark voucher program exclusively for Cleveland students.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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