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School Choice Programs in Ohio Attacked on Several Fronts

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Ohio Governor Ted Strickland sharply criticized the state's EdChoice voucher program in his first State of the State speech, and announced plans to drop it from his budget. "To me, vouchers are inherently undemocratic," he said.

The two-year-old EdChoice program offers school vouchers of up to $5,000 to students in Ohio's lowest achieving public schools. About 2,900 students used the vouchers to attend private schools this school year, out of 14,000 who were eligible.

Parents and others who favor school choice protested Gov. Strickland's plans and comments. "He called it 'wastefulness and giveaways.' That's absurd," according to Youngstown Christian School president Mike Pecchia's statement to the Associated Press. His school welcomed 45 new students using vouchers this year. "We do it way cheaper than anybody else does and we do it better," he said.

Ohio's teachers unions, which have long opposed school choice, issued statements supporting the governor's position. "School vouchers are simply an opportunity for scams and gaming the system," said the president of the 20,000-member Ohio Federation of Teachers.

The governor did not propose ending the state's two other voucher programs, one of which is for Cleveland students and the other for students with autism.

He did express his suspicion of charter schools, another of Ohio's school choice programs. "Ohio's implementation of the charter school movement has been a dismal, dismal failure," he said. "Some states have done it rather well with apparently positive results. In Ohio, it's been a story of mismanagement, fiscal and educational failure, and it's turned into a for-profit operation for certain individuals."

While several groups have leveled similar accusations against Ohio's charter schools, it remains unclear whether the groups have actually found instances of mismanagement, or whether they simply object to charter schools no matter how they are managed. The Toledo Blade, for example, cited connections among various groups involved with charter schools, but failed to show that these connections are improper.

Nine days after the governor's speech, the Ohio Education Association, the state's largest teachers union boasting 130,000 members, filed a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Education, the Board of Education and Superintendent Susan Zelman. The union claims that the state has not properly overseen Ohio's charter schools.

Lawsuits are nothing new for Ohio's school choice programs. The charter schools won an important suit in the fall of 2000, when the state Supreme Court ruled that they are constitutional. Teachers unions also sued over the Cleveland voucher program, saying it gave money to religious schools and therefore violated the Establishment Clause. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the program was "neutral in all respects toward religion," since parents, not the government, decide how they will use the vouchers.

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