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Expansion of school vouchers in Ohio fails on many fronts



Published: Tue, October 4, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

Just as many public school districts in the Mahoning Valley and throughout Ohio are vigilantly trying to slay the dollar-slashing demons of stinging cuts in state subsidies, falling local revenue and weakened federal support, along comes a bevy of Republican state lawmakers who want to agitate an already out-of-control fiscal monster.

Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, sponsor of House Bill 136, and his cohorts plan a massive expansion in the state’s voucher program that would translate into an exodus of students – and millions of dollars in state support – from public school districts large and small, rich and poor in every nook and cranny of Ohio.

The proposal flunks the common-sense test on a multitude of platforms: It could propel some school districts to the precipice of fiscal collapse. It could reverse ongoing gains in public-school student achievement. And it could raise serious constitutional challenges to the state’s commitment to separation of church and state.

All told, school boards throughout the region have legitimate objections to the legislation. Some have adopted resolutions of firm opposition to it. Others should follow suit, and all Ohioans concerned about preserving quality public education should tell legislators to torpedo this ill-conceived and potentially destructive plan.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS WOULD LOSE MILLIONS

In its current form, approved by committee and heading for a full House vote, HB 136 would deduct about $5,800 from a school district’s state aid for each student who receives a voucher.

Considering the mammoth expansion HB 136 proposes in student eligibility, many public schools would be squeezed into a deeper fiscal abyss. That’s because the legislation would allow any student in any district whose family makes less than $95,000 a year to get a voucher to cover the cost of tuition at a private or parochial school. The current voucher program essentially is reserved for students from low-income (at or near poverty levels) families.

What’s worse, the new vouchers would be available to students in districts of all achievement levels. The current program restricts vouchers to those in districts that are ranked as poor or failing. That means an expansion from only six districts in the state – including Youngstown and Warren – to all 600-plus districts, even the 350 rated excellent and excellent with distinction.

Mark Schare, a school-choice proponent and president of the Granville Board of Education near Columbus, recognizes the sleight-of-hand machinations in the proposal. “The issue is the diversion of local property-tax dollars to a cause other than what it was intended to do,” said Schare. “It would be as if the Legislature took dollars from a local library levy and used those dollars to fund gift certificates for Barnes & Noble.”

The bill also represents a gigantic erosion in the widely valued principle of separation of church and state. Many of the tax dollars taken away from public school districts administered by publicly-elected school boards with publicly-funded tax dollars would be channeled toward competing religious schools.

As Samuel Rabinove, former legal director of the American Jewish Committee, points out: “In fact, the primary beneficiaries of any voucher legislation would be religious schools, which comprise 87 percent of nonpublic schools.”

If Ohio Republicans succeed in steamrolling this misguided, constitutionally anemic, public-schools-be-damned legislation through the General Assembly, we would count on a popular initiative to repeal it. But to avoid such time and turmoil, the legislation ought to be quashed post haste at the Statehouse. Local school leaders do not deserve the additional havoc such an unbridled expansion of vouchers would wreak on their already distressed districts.


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