WHOSE CHOICE? / Third in a four-part series



Published Tuesday, December 14, 1999



 



Voucher plan leaves long list of broken vows


 



Program costs public schools, doesn’t raise private enrollment and leaves handicapped students behind



 



By Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard



Beacon Journal staff writers



 



   When then-Gov. George Voinovich went to Cleveland in late 1995 to kick off the voucher program, there was a sentence crossed out of his speech: "Scholarships will be offered to all eligible students in the district, including main-streamed and separately educated, handicapped students."

    The ink through the sentence was the beginning of broken promises made to the people and children of Cleveland.

    Promise 1: Cleveland schools would be held harmless financially by the voucher experiment. Two years later, Cleveland was losing money to the program.

    Promise 2: Vouchers would allow for an exodus from the failing public schools. Three years later, with 4,000 children using vouchers, private school enrollment had risen by only 300 -- raising the possibility that the other 3,700 vouchers went to families who otherwise would have sent their children to private schools.

    Promise 3: Children who remained in Cleveland public schools could receive state-funded tutoring. The tutoring was never fully implemented, and the money saved was used to help cover cost overruns in the voucher program.

    Promise 4: Handicapped children would be accommodated.

    A letter from voucher school operator David Brennan to the governor's office on Sept. 27, 1996, acknowledged that: "Numerous scholarship (voucher) recipients were discouraged from taking their scholarships to private schools with the full knowledge that none of the existing private schools will be able to handle a seriously handicapped child."

    Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Monica Zarichny said recently that the voucher office did not discourage applications, but merely made it clear that some of the services the children needed were not available in voucher schools.

    "Many Catholic schools are not equipped to handle handicapped children or do not offer the services they need," she said.

    But the bottom line is that handicapped children had few opportunities to participate.

    Tom Murphey, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said that there could be a federal offense if any of the schools were receiving federal funds.

    In 1996, Voinovich chastised the Toledo Blade newspaper when its editorial writers said vouchers could hurt public schools.

    Voinovich said the program "will not deny one dollar to the Cleveland system. In fact, Cleveland will continue receiving state funding for scholarship (voucher) recipients who choose to enroll elsewhere."

    That guarantee was eliminated in the fall of 1998, according to Department of Education officials.

    Voinovich also told the Blade that Cleveland would receive nearly $1 million to tutor children who remained in the public schools. For every child who receives a voucher, there is to be a public school child who receives a tutoring grant, the law says.

    In the first year, 2,000 children received vouchers, but only 140 were tutored, according to records. That shortchanged the public-school children by about $550,000.

    State officials complained that they had difficulty finding tutors who would work for the money the state was paying: about $10 an hour. But while there were cost overruns on the voucher side, no one made a move to spend more for tutors.

    It wasn't until this year, when there weren't enough applicants to take all of the voucher money, that the state raised the tutoring pay to $20 an hour, which is closer to the going rate in Cleveland.

    "This is an issue of not fulfilling the pledge to use these dollars for tutoring," said state Sen. C.J. Prentiss, D-Cleveland. "There should have been an aggressive push on the part of the (education) department to make it happen."

    The number of children being tutored never reached half the number of vouchers.

    Meanwhile, 40 school buses had to begin transporting voucher schoolchildren when the Cleveland school bus fleet was already at capacity because of the addition of all-day kindergarten and increasing enrollment, according to records.

    It wasn't until the voucher transportation fiasco prevented private-school children from getting their rides that the legislature decided to help Cleveland by providing training money for new drivers.

    Now, children attending voucher and charter schools are more likely to have school bus transportation than children who attend the public schools, Cleveland school officials said.



 



Doug Oplinger can be reached at doplinger@thebeaconjournal.com