Ohio Governor Candidates Debate Schooling Options

Ohio's candidates for governor split in their second debate Wednesday on how much to support alternative types of schooling over traditional public schools.

Republican Ken Blackwell talked about the importance of spending education dollars so they follow children to the schools they choose. The state should "provide a system that actually would provide broader choices for parents and students," he said.

The race is among the most closely watched in the nation because the winner will play a key role in trying to win the state for his party's presidential candidate in 2008. Ohio clinched re-election for President Bush two years ago.

Democrat Ted Strickland says Ohio is not even meeting its obligations to traditional public schools yet.

"Ohio has not done well for children, has not provided them with the type of school funding that they deserve and our Constitution demands," he said.

Strickland strongly criticized charter schools, thumping his podium as he spoke about them, saying charter schools weren't being held accountable and were making some private individuals rich.

"This is a rip-off of the public tax dollar and my opponent wants to increase that rip-off," Strickland said.

Strickland also said Blackwell's plan to put 65 percent of state dollars to classroom instruction used flawed numbers and would eliminate school nurses, librarians and bus drivers. He said the plan would take $5 billion a year out of state funds.

Blackwell charged that Strickland was more interested in protecting teachers and their unions than helping improve education. He called Strickland a sideline critic whose ideas "are nothing more than smoke and mirrors."

Blackwell said his plan would cost only $1.2 billion and wouldn't require a property tax increase. By contrast, Strickland's education plan "can be summed up in a few words — increase spending and increase taxes," he said.

"Mr. Strickland is ready to serve a bureaucracy," Blackwell said. "I'm ready to serve our students."

The debate, one of four planned in the race before the Nov. 7 election, was at the WEWS television station and aired live statewide on cable television and the Internet.

Both candidates said they wanted to get more money to schools and teachers.

Blackwell said his plan would move $1.2 billion in spending to classrooms without a property tax increase. He promoted subsidies for students to use toward public colleges.

Strickland pushed a voucher system to help students with college.

Dozens of people holding signs in support of Blackwell and Strickland stood outside the station's studio before the debate began. About 20 to 25 people also gathered to protest Libertarian candidate Bill Peirce's exclusion from the debate.

Two protesters dressed in chicken outfits with tags that said "Ken" and "Ted" walked into the street and disrupted traffic and were arrested, police said.

Howard Kornhauser, 38, of South Euclid, and the Libertarian candidate's son, Arjen Peirce, 38, of Petaluma, Calif., were issued misdemeanor citations of failure to comply with a lawful order and using ordinary care, police Lt. Thomas Stacho said.

In a campaign where Democrats hope to gain from a state government scandal that unfolded under Republican leadership, both candidates again criticized Gov. Bob Taft.

Strickland said Blackwell would study education with another "Taft-like blue-ribbon panel." Blackwell said Strickland would continue Taft's practice of raising taxes.

Taft, a Republican with record low approval ratings, pleaded no contest last year to failing to report golf outings and other gifts.

Strickland said Republicans were at fault for failing to follow Ohio Supreme Court decisions declaring the state's school-funding system unconstitutional. He used that criticism to pursue a theme that Ohio needed a strong governor willing to take the oath of office seriously.

Each candidate repeated their themes in closing statements in a debate that lasted just under an hour.