Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Ohio’s Dramatic Expansion of School Choice Praised by Nation’s Original Voucher Organization

Gov. John Kasich today signed Ohio’s 2011-2012 budget that dramatically expands the state’s EdChoice Scholarship Program, establishes a new scholarship program for children with disabilities, and makes needed improvements to the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program. This expansion triples the number of Ohio students eligible for vouchers.

“This is the year of growth for school choice, and Ohio has just joined the bumper crop of states that have decided to make educational choice a centerpiece of education reform,” said Robert C. Enlow, President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the nation’s leading advocate for school choice. “The commitment of Gov. Kasich and the support of Rep. Matt Huffman and Senators Kevin Bacon and Peggy Lehner is inspiring. Their efforts will ensure that tens of thousands more children will have an opportunity to attend effective schools that motivate and challenge them to succeed.”

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has long supported school choice efforts in Ohio. For almost a decade, the Foundation has undertaken research on the effectiveness of Ohio’s school choice programs. The Foundation also has supported the local efforts — spearheaded by School Choice Ohio — to implement the EdChoice Scholarship Program and educate Ohioans on the benefits of school choice.

“Ohio families emerged victorious today,” said Chad Aldis, Executive Director of School Choice Ohio. “The strengthening and expansion of existing voucher programs and the creation of a scholarship for students with disabilities are tremendous steps forward for Ohio families. This success would not have been possible without the support of trusted partners like the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.”

Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program, enacted in 2005, allows students attending chronically failing public schools to receive vouchers to attend private schools. The budget signed today by Gov. Kasich increases the EdChoice Scholarship Program’s reach by:

Expanding the eligible pool of students — Amends the definition of a failing public school to consider both the school’s state rating and the numerical performance index score the school receives.

Quadrupling the cap — The EdChoice Scholarship Program currently is limited to 14,000 children. The budget increases its cap to 60,000 students, quadrupling the number of available vouchers.

Allowing a summer application window — This year, newly-eligible families will be able to apply for the upcoming school year in the summer, instead of waiting a full year for the spring application period.

The budget also creates a new program for students with disabilities, building on the successful Ohio Autism Scholarship Program. Any Ohio student with special needs who has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) can receive a voucher worth approximately 90 percent of his or her current public school funding. Actual scholarship amounts will be based on each student’s disability and associated educational needs.

Approximately 260,000 students with special needs would be scholarship eligible, according to School Choice Ohio. Notably, accessibility to that new program is capped at five percent of Ohio’s students with special needs, which would provide just more than 13,000 scholarships statewide.

Finally, the budget makes needed improvements to the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program and addresses a historic inequality in the voucher amount available to participating children compared with those using the statewide EdChoice Scholarship Program. Currently, the maximum amount of a voucher in Cleveland is $3,450, whereas the maximum amount of an EdChoice voucher is $4,250 for grades K-8 and $5,000 for grades 9-12. Going forward, the voucher in Cleveland will be worth the same amount as the EdChoice voucher.

With two expanded school choice programs and one new program, Ohio joins a true education reform revolution. This year, 11 states have passed 17 school choice laws, of which seven establish new programs and 10 expand or improve existing programs.

“Ohio’s bold reforms will ensure that school choice grows in the state until every family has the freedom to choose how to educate their child, and until every child receives an effective education that prepares him or her for success in life,” said Enlow.


Union curbs rescue a Wisconsin school district

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signs his first budget in front of supporters gathered at Fox Valley Metal Tech in Ashwaubenon, Wis., on Sunday, June 26, 2011. The budget helped save the struggling Kaukauna School District, in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin.

"This is a disaster," said Mark Miller, the Wisconsin Senate Democratic leader, in February after Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed a budget bill that would curtail the collective bargaining powers of some public employees. Miller predicted catastrophe if the bill were to become law -- a charge repeated thousands of times by his fellow Democrats, union officials, and protesters in the streets.

Now the bill is law, and we have some very early evidence of how it is working. And for one beleaguered Wisconsin school district, it's a godsend, not a disaster.

The Kaukauna School District, in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin near Appleton, has about 4,200 students and about 400 employees. It has struggled in recent times and this year faced a deficit of $400,000. But after the law went into effect, at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, school officials put in place new policies they estimate will turn that $400,000 deficit into a $1.5 million surplus. And it's all because of the very provisions that union leaders predicted would be disastrous.

In the past, teachers and other staff at Kaukauna were required to pay 10 percent of the cost of their health insurance coverage and none of their pension costs. Now, they'll pay 12.6 percent of the cost of their coverage (still well below rates in much of the private sector) and also contribute 5.8 percent of salary to their pensions. The changes will save the school board an estimated $1.2 million this year, according to board President Todd Arnoldussen.

Of course, Wisconsin unions had offered to make benefit concessions during the budget fight. Wouldn't Kaukauna's money problems have been solved if Walker had just accepted those concessions and not demanded cutbacks in collective bargaining powers?

"The monetary part of it is not the entire issue," says Arnoldussen, a political independent who won a spot on the board in a nonpartisan election. Indeed, some of the most important improvements in Kaukauna's outlook are because of the new limits on collective bargaining.

In the past, Kaukauna's agreement with the teachers union required the school district to purchase health insurance coverage from something called WEA Trust -- a company created by the Wisconsin teachers union. "It was in the collective bargaining agreement that we could only negotiate with them," says Arnoldussen. "Well, you know what happens when you can only negotiate with one vendor." This year, WEA Trust told Kaukauna that it would face a significant increase in premiums.

Now, the collective bargaining agreement is gone, and the school district is free to shop around for coverage. And all of a sudden, WEA Trust has changed its position. "With these changes, the schools could go out for bids, and lo and behold, WEA Trust said, 'We can match the lowest bid,'" says Republican state Rep. Jim Steineke, who represents the area and supports the Walker changes. At least for the moment, Kaukauna is staying with WEA Trust, but saving substantial amounts of money.

Then there are work rules. "In the collective bargaining agreement, high school teachers only had to teach five periods a day, out of seven," says Arnoldussen. "Now, they're going to teach six." In addition, the collective bargaining agreement specified that teachers had to be in the school 37 1/2 hours a week. Now, it will be 40 hours.

The changes mean Kaukauna can reduce the size of its classes -- from 31 students to 26 students in high school and from 26 students to 23 students in elementary school. In addition, there will be more teacher time for one-on-one sessions with troubled students. Those changes would not have been possible without the much-maligned changes in collective bargaining.

Teachers' salaries will stay "relatively the same," Arnoldussen says, except for higher pension and health care payments. (The top salary is around $80,000 per year, with about $35,000 in additional benefits, for 184 days of work per year -- summers off.) Finally, the money saved will be used to hire a few more teachers and institute merit pay.

It is impossible to overstate how bitter and ugly the Wisconsin fight has been, and that bitterness and ugliness continues to this day with efforts to recall senators and an unseemly battle inside the state Supreme Court. But the new law is now a reality, and Gov. Walker recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the measure will gain acceptance "with every day, week and month that goes by that the world doesn't fall apart."

In the Kaukauna schools, the world is not only not falling apart -- it's getting better.


North Carolina Becomes 12th U.S. State to Enact School Choice in 2011

Bill becomes law without governor’s signature

Today House Bill 344 — Tax Credits for Children with Disabilities — became the law of North Carolina. The measure previously passed the state House of Representatives by a 95-20 vote, and passed the Senate by an overwhelming vote of 44-5.

65 percent of the state Democrat caucus supported the bill to provide more educational opportunities for parents of children with special needs.

“Families across the state of North Carolina will now have the freedom to choose the education that’s best for their individual children, thanks to Rep. Paul Stam and Darrell Allison, President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. Their leadership made this law possible, ” said Robert C. Enlow, President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “We also commend the North Carolina legislators — from both sides of the aisle — who stood up for the state’s children by creating this program.”

Under the law, North Carolina parents of students with special needs will be able to claim an independent tax credit for expenses related to private school tuition and other educational services. Specifically, those families can receive a non-refundable tax credit worth up to $6,000 annually.

It is estimated nearly 200,000 K-12 students in North Carolina public schools are receiving special education and other related services this school year. An analysis by Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina found the tax credits could save taxpayers up to $10 million within the next five years.

“This is the year of educational options,” said Enlow. “North Carolina has now joined the growing number of states providing greater educational options to parents of children with special needs.”


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