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Gov. Kasich's expansion of school vouchers triggers debate
Ohio lawmakers weigh the merits of private-school vouchers in all school districts

Jo Ingles
Among the beneficiaries of the vouchers would be Ohio's Catholic schools if they choose to participate.
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Gov. Kasich’s new education plan will allow more vouchers to be used for private elementary, middle and high schools. Ohio Public Radio’s Jo Ingles reports on what this change means and how lawmakers are reacting to it.
Kasich, lawmakers on feasibility of voucher expansion

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There are 1.8 million elementary, middle and high school students in Ohio and about 45 percent of them come from families who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Under Gov. Kasich’s new education plan, kindergartners whose families meet those income guidelines would be eligible for state-issued vouchers for private schools the first year. The next year, that would extend to first-graders. And each year after, another grade level likely would be added.

That means qualifying students would get a voucher for a private school and that school, if it chooses to admit voucher students, could not charge the family more for tuition.

"It is not paid for out of the hides of districts. This would be a direct payment," Kasich says. "We are doing this because we want to see if this will help children do better. We want to give parents more choice."

No longer just for failing school districts
Ohio's current voucher program limits the private school option to academically poor-performing school districts.

Kasich says he's built funding for the expansion the first two years into his budget. But he acknowledges that could be expanded in the future so that students who take advantage of vouchers the first two years could continue to use them in later grades.

All of this raises red flags for the minority leader in the Ohio House, Democrat Armond Budish. He says there is not enough money going to schools right now due to massive budget cuts two years ago.

He says the governor is choosing that path "rather than start to restore funds that schools need to bring class sizes back down a little bit, to restore some of the cuts to programs, in tutors, in the length of school days. Many schools have shortened their school days as a result of cuts in the last budget," Budish says.
"This budget does very little to restore those funds and cuts to number of teachers. So by then taking more money away through expanded vouchers, you are only going to cause more harm and in this case, to high-performing good schools because that’s where the expansion is coming."

Private school doesn't mean good school
Budish says many of the schools that would get the vouchers already are underperforming, and are not held to the same level of scrutiny as public schools.

"If a school gets public money, they need to be held accountable to the taxpayers for the use of those funds," Budish says. "We need to make sure that the rules that apply to public schools also apply to other schools that are getting public money."

But the Republican vice chairman of the Ohio House Education Committee, Andy Brenner, looks at the accountability issue a little differently.

Public schools need to compete
"I think we should be allowing the public schools more flexibility in how they are handling things. The reality is the voucher schools are there and will only be there as long as people want to send their students there. If they are doing a bad job, they will go out of business and students will leave, so you've basically got a free-market mechanism in place."

Gov. Kasich’s new education plan does allow schools some additional flexibility when it comes to things like new programming, and mandated days of attendance. And Brenner says there’s no reason why good school districts should lose students. But he says there’s something else to remember when Democrats bring up this issue of restoring money to public schools. He says back in 2008, Ohio used federal stimulus dollars to balance the education budget.

"The federal government gave us money two (General Assemblies) ago. The 128th chose to use one-time money to prop up the schools for a two-year period. And then when the federal government withdrew the money, ... they think that’s a cut we are making. That’s not a cut that the state of Ohio is making. That’s a cut that the feds chose to make."

The governor’s $15.1 billion education plan increases state aid to schools by 6 percent in the coming year and 3.2 percent the year after that. Brenner says lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will be looking over details of the governor’s plan during the next couple of weeks. And he says if there are bugs that need to be worked out, legislators will do that.
Democratic House Minority leader Armond Budish says Democrats want a seat at that table to help make those decisions.

(Click image for larger view.)

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