OHIO BUDGET Taft renews talks about expansion

Opponents say the program already takes needed money away from districts.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- The debate over giving schoolchildren more choices for their education is being renewed in Gov. Bob Taft's next two-year budget.
Taft, a Republican, plans to expand a school voucher program currently limited to Cleveland, allowing up to 2,600 more students at schools with persistently failing test scores to attend the private school of their choice.
Taft will include the $9 million expansion, called the Limited Ohio Choice Scholarship, as part of the budget plan introduced Thursday, several Ohio education groups briefed on the proposal Wednesday told The Associated Press.
The proposal will provide scholarships of $3,500 to students to attend the private school of their choice beginning in the fall of 2006, said representatives of the Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio Association of School Business Officials and the Ohio Federation of Teachers, among others.
Children in elementary schools that fail to meet state proficiency standards in math and reading three years in a row would be eligible.
If implemented today, the scholarships would be available to children at 71 schools currently meeting those requirements, according to the educators. Many but not all of the schools are in the state's big-city districts.
Taft said the program will make it clear to educators that something must be done about low performing schools.
"I've really lost my patience with students who are trapped in these failing schools," Taft said Thursday. "It's just not acceptable."
Growing debate
Taft made a brief mention of the plan in his State of the State speech Tuesday. He said his budget "will include new choices for students trapped in persistently failing schools."
The proposal will join a debate in Ohio that started when the voucher program, then extended to the charter school system, began in 1998.
From just a few hundred students, the charter school program has grown to more than 60,000 children this year. Ohio will pay almost $400 million to support charter schools this year, according to the Department of Education.
Supporters say the voucher program and charter schools give needed options to children they say the traditional public schools have failed. Opponents say the programs take needed money away from districts and that the alternative schools haven't performed well academically.
"There are proven approaches to turning around low-performing schools and it makes a lot more sense to improve the schools that kids now attend rather than move kids around," said Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
The Cleveland program was created in 1996 in response to high failure rates among schoolchildren there. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the program constitutional in 2002.
The program gives parents, most of them poor, a tuition subsidy of up to $2,250 per child. There were more than 4,500 students in the Cleveland program last year.
House Speaker Jon Husted, a proponent of school options such as charter schools, said lawmakers will review all areas of education in the budget.
Taft's education budget proposal will also include increases in the state's overall education spending of 2.7 percent next year and 2.3 percent the following year, educators briefed on the plan said. The state is spending about $7.3 billion on schools this year.

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