An Opportunity to Lead A Conversation

Peter W. Schramm

June 10, 1999

Cleveland City Schools are among the worst in the state. On the recent State of Ohio School District Report Cards, Cleveland City Schools met 0 of 18 performance standards. Sometimes facts speak so clearly that their meaning is beyond dispute.

It was because of the distressing state of the Cleveland schools that three years ago the Ohio Legislature created the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program. It is through this program that students in Cleveland are given scholarships to attend any registered public or private school of their choice. In its first year, there were over 6,000 applicants for the 2,000 scholarships for students in kindergarten through third grades. Since then a grade-level has been added each year, and the program now gives scholarships to over 3,500 students in kindergarten through fifth grades.

Because the scholarship—which is capped at $2,500—cannot cover the full cost of tuition, the parents, depending on their income, must pay 10% to 25% of the tuition to attend the alternative school.

Opponents of the program have been hoping that the Ohio Supreme Court would end the program once and for all on some high minded principle (like keeping church and state separate). Last week, however, the Supreme Court threw a curveball by ruling the program unconstitutional, but not for the substantive reasons many had hoped.

The Court ruled that there was no violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Instead, the ruling declared the program unconstitutional on procedural grounds.

The Ohio Constitution says that, “[n]o bill shall contain more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title.” According to the Court, “the School Voucher Program was created in a general appropriations bill consisting of over one thousand pages, of which it comprised only ten pages.” It “was in essence little more than a rider attached to an appropriations bill,” and is therefore unconstitutional because it violates the one-subject in the Ohio Constitution. As a result, the program will end on June 30.

The solution to the problem caused by the ruling is simple: the Ohio Legislature must pass new legislation to establish the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program. Although the Republicans, from Governor Taft on down, have said they will do it—and I believe them—I think how they do it may have greater significance than that it be done.

This is a great opportunity for our public officials to re-argue the case for the Cleveland Scholarship Program. When the pilot program was first proposed, most Republicans (and a few Democrats) who supported it were more interested in getting it done than in making the powerful argument on why it needed to be done. They were afraid of antagonizing the politically powerful Ohio Education Association, and afraid that they would be seen as anti-public school. The public discourse left something to be desired.

The current situation gives our public officials—both those who are in favor of the Cleveland Scholarship Program as well as those opposed—the opportunity to initiate a broad ranging conversation about the state of secondary education in Ohio.

Many issues about quality, curriculum, teacher training, costs, retention, and so on, could be brought up and talked about. They could use this opportunity to initiate a state-wide conversation about education. Unlike the President’s conversation about race—which has a squishy insubstantial quality to it—this public dialogue could lead to other changes in educational policy. Ohio politicians could make a very great contribution to the common good.

This pilot program should certainly continue. A study by Paul Peterson of Harvard University found that 63% of parents in the voucher schools were “very satisfied” with the academic quality of their school, compared with less than 30% of public school parents. And it must be remembered that these parents—60% of whom have family income below the poverty level—have taken their kids out of the free public schools and are paying at least 10% of tuition plus registration and book fees to send them to an alternative school. This massive fact alone is sufficient to continue the Cleveland program.

On tests, the students in the voucher program are doing just as well or better than they did in Cleveland City Schools, but the voucher schools are doing this with less than half the money than Cleveland City Schools. (It costs the state an average of $1,700 for each scholarship in the voucher program, compared to the $7,097 that Cleveland City Schools pays.)

The Cleveland voucher program is important, the re-authorization of which—and the necessary conversation that should ensue—could help Ohio citizens better understand both the virtues and vices of our schools. Allowing the pilot program to continue is a significant step. But we should also encourage serious, courageous, and comprehensive conversations about these matters. Politicians should not be afraid. They all want to be leaders. They ought to lead the conversation on education. There may be nothing more important.


Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. ([email protected])