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Governor promotes budget plan as critics mobilize
SOURCE: Associated Press
JULIE CARR SMYTH
March 16 2007

COLUMBUS - Gov. Ted Strickland crossed the state Thursday to promote his $53 billion spending blueprint as anger flared among advocates of education choice over his plan to scrap the state voucher program outside Cleveland.

Strickland surprised many Wednesday when he said in his State of the State speech that he would stop students in other cities at low-performing schools from receiving the vouchers to pay for tuition to attend private and parochial schools. The new Democratic governor also said his budget will prohibit for-profit companies from running state-funded charter schools, as he seeks to funnel more resources to public education within a cash-strapped state budget. His spending plan increases state spending at just 2.2 percent a year on average, a rate barely lower than the last budget under GOP Gov. Bob Taft and less than any budget in the past 42 years.

"The charter school movement in Ohio has been a dismal failure," Strickland said during a Thursday stop in Cleveland. "What I'm asking for in terms of charter schools is simply that they are held to the same standards of fiscal and educational accountability that we are expecting out of our public schools." David Zanotti, president of the conservative policy think tank that fought for years to protect vouchers, said backers are mobilizing parents statewide to fight the plan.

He said much time and money - for legal battles that extended to the U.S. Supreme Court - has been poured into the voucher option. Ohio has the nation's largest voucher program, which was born as an experiment in Cleveland in 1995 and expanded by the state in 2005 to include other low-performing public districts.

"It's a much more aggressive attack than we anticipated," said Zanotti, of the Ohio Roundtable. "His opinions against vouchers were known, but to start throwing kids out of school is really a shock to everyone. We've talked to a bunch of principals this morning who have kids in the EdChoice program, and they're in a state of shock."

Cutting the program for 2,829 students participating outside Cleveland would put $13 million a year back into public schools.

Public schools have complained for years about losing money to charter schools and private schools that students attend through the voucher program.

Strickland's plan would boost the state share of education to 54 percent, the biggest portion since the state's school-funding system was repeatedly declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

However, close to half of public school districts - including large urban ones in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus - are not slated to receive funding increases as much of the state school aid gets funneled to districts with growing enrollment.

The amount paid per student by the state will rise 3 percent under the plan, to $5,565 in the fiscal year beginning July 1, and $5,732 the year after that, said state budget director Pari Sabety, and no district will lose money under the proposal.

Strickland's budget also would eliminate certain tax breaks and would sell off Ohio's future tobacco settlement payments to investors so the state can have $50 million right away for public education, health care for children, expanded social programs and property tax cuts for seniors.

"We have identified ways to get additional resources without raising taxes and increasing fees," Strickland said.

William Corr, executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the proposal to sell future tobacco settlement funds to investors would break a promise Ohio leaders made to spend a significant part of the state's settlement money on programs to reduce tobacco use, especially among children.

"Because the proposal fails to provide any funding to sustain Ohio's highly successful tobacco prevention and cessation program, more Ohio kids will start to smoke, more lives will be lost and state taxpayers will foot the bill for higher tobacco-caused health care costs," Corr said in a statement.

Altogether, 16 of 76 state agencies receive budget cuts, including alcohol and drug addiction services and the Ohio Historical Society. Another 22 agencies will see no increase. The remaining 38 departments would see increases in money from the state, including transportation, mental health, development, aging and youth and adult prisons.

"We're not engaged in gimmicks or sleight of hand. We're going to lay out precisely where the resources are coming from and how they are going to be invested," Strickland said.

Strickland's budget rolls back business tax breaks for big retailers, petroleum producers and for out-of-state residents who come to Ohio to buy cars, meanwhile providing a property tax cut to the disabled and all residents over 65 years old on the first $25,000 of their home.

State tax commissioner Rich Levin said that amounts to $400 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home, who is now paying $1,600 in property tax annually. He said the break will help those with less expensive homes more, because it will result in a 50 percent tax break if your home is worth $50,000, for example, while providing only a 1 percent tax break to the person whose home is worth $2.5 million.

Sabety said the move will also help reduce the education system's overreliance on property taxes, which has been repeatedly deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Associated Press Writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins and John McCarthy in Columbus and M.R. Kropko in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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