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Q&A: House Speaker Bill Batchelder Says Without Religious Community, Ohio Would Not Have Had Vouchers

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 3:44 PM

Bill Batchelder is Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives.

Ten years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it was ok to use public money to subsidize private, religious school tuition. The court's ruling in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case concerned Ohio's first school voucher program, the Cleveland Scholarship Program.

The ruling was "the most important ruling on religion and the schools in the 40 years since the court declared organized prayer in the public schools to be unconstitutional." It propped open the door for the expansion of vouchers in Ohio and other states.

Ohio House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R, Medina) helped draft the legislation that created the Cleveland voucher program. During his 36 years in the state House of Representatives, he has been a supporter of vouchers, charter schools and "school choice." We spoke with him at a School Choice Ohio event this week celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision.

[audio href="" title="Q&A: Ohio House Speaker Bill Batchelder"]"In the absence of the religious community we would not have had vouchers."[/audio]

Q: What mistakes has Ohio made that are a warning to other states who are also thinking about developing vouchers?

A: I think it's valuable for people to understand that in the absence of the religious community we would not have had vouchers. The Catholic bishop here was very interested. The Jewish community, very interested, and so it was that we had people, Lutherans and so forth, who reached out and took children regardless of their religious orientation and took them into their schools and gave them the opportunity to go to a private school if that was what they wanted to do.

“That 46 of the 56 private schools now participating in the program are religious schools does not condemn it as a violation of the Establishment Clause.”
—Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris majority opinion

Q: Is that a model for other states to follow?

A: I think so. We had a particularly effective bishop here. Of course, they had a lot of schools that weren't full, so it was is a beautiful thing to get those students there.

Q: Has this left Ohio students and families better off?

A: I don't think there's any question about that. Public schools are great and I'm all for public schools. Sometimes people get confused about that, but I am strongly for public schools. There is a problem though for some people, for some youngsters. Some youngsters just don't fit into the public school model. Some of them because of their backgrounds, some of them because of frankly fear that some of the urban schools engender. So it's just an alternative so that some young people who don't fit there do fit somewhere.

Q: So the Ohio voucher system is piecemeal. You have all these different programs. What was the thinking way back then to start in Cleveland?

A: Quite frankly, it was that we had a decline in enrollment in Cleveland public schools, dramatically, and there were opportunities in a lot of the private schools to accommodate more students. But they didn't have any alternative at that point, so that was the thinking.

[And, as Jim Carl writes in his history of vouchers in American education, legislators were open to starting with Cleveland because, as State Rep. Michael Fox explained, "The school district was a mess, it was impossible to defend it."]

"In sum, the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice."
—Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris majority opinion

Q: When the legislation was written, did you think we'd be here, where we are today?

A: No, I never did. My assumption was that Cleveland would have voucher schools, some other urban schools would go to vouchers, but that by and large that wouldn't happen in most of the state. So it's kind of exciting to be here tonight with the legislation that I drafted and carried and went clear to the United States Supreme Court.

Q: Where are we going to be in another 10 years?

A: I wouldn't want to guess. I know that there are younger people than me that are going to be working on that. I am confident that they will carry on because the children need them.

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