The case for holding Ohio’s voucher schools accountable for results

Last week, the Fordham Institute released a report with recommendations on accountability in publicly funded private-school-choice programs. The furor it has incited among school-choice advocates around the country (here, here, and here) is palpable but not unexpected. Their concerns are many, but in a Flypaper piece, Mike Petrilli responds that the consequences of bad schools—bad schools of all types—are too real to ignore.

In Ohio, home to five private-school-choice programs (more voucher programs than any other state), the recommendations have not caused an uproar, perhaps because many of the report’s recommendations are already in law within Buckeye borders.

1.) Require that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) participate in state assessments.

While this is probably the most controversial recommendation, four out of five of Ohio’s programs (all but the Autism Scholarship) already mandate this by law. Ohio’s largest private voucher program, the EdChoice Scholarship, has required participants to take the state assessment from the time it was first proposed. Credit for including this provision goes to the foresight of key players at the time: Governor Bob Taft, House Speaker Jon Husted, and Senate President Bill Harris. With more than 31,000 students now using vouchers in Ohio and the numbers steadily growing every year, there’s no sign that it has had a negative impact on participation by either private schools or students or that it has warped the schools’ autonomy or mission.

2.) Mandate public disclosure of those assessment results, school by school, save for schools that enroll fewer than ten voucher (or scholarship) students in grades that are tested.

Ohio law is ahead of the curve on this front, too, but implementation has been slow and incomplete. State leaders realized that having voucher students take the same assessments as everyone else is a nice accountability measure on its face, but it only matters if the results are released to the public. So, in 2009, the legislature passed Section 3310.15 of the Ohio Revised Code mandating the disclosure of test results for the EdChoice Scholarship (Cleveland, too, section 3313.978(G)). The new requirements called for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to

  • Compile the test scores of all voucher students;
  • Publish voucher-student performance on its website and organize the data by private school, by originating school district, and statewide;
  • Make available test data by grade level, race, gender, economic status, and length of time in the program;
  • Distribute data by February 1 of each year to parents of eligible students; and
  • Provide comparison data to current scholarship students showing the performance of similar students who are not using the voucher.

Implementation started slowly, but ODE is making more and more test data available. On its website, you can find EdChoice and Cleveland scholarship assessment results for the programs as a whole. Interestingly, the Cleveland program has results available school by school (the most useful information for a prospective parent), but EdChoice does not. The last two bullets require eligible students to receive performance data and scholarship recipients to receive comparison data, but neither measure is being implemented, at least not with information going directly to parents. While providing information directly to parents is time consuming and potentially costly, ODE should not let that stand in the way, as empowering parents with information is perhaps the single most important step the department could take to raise voucher-student achievement.

Furthermore, Ohio has so far missed the mark on Fordham’s final recommendation:

3.) Use a sliding scale when it comes to acting on the test results—i.e., private schools that derive little of their revenue from programs of this kind should be largely left alone, while those that receive more of their dollars from state initiatives should be held more accountable.

Never mind a “sliding scale”—in Ohio, we find no consequences in law or rule when a private school fails to serve voucher students well. Even if every single voucher-bearing pupil in a school failed to pass the state assessment, nothing would prevent that school from taking additional students the following year. In an era dominated by academic accountability, this policy (or lack of a policy) seems particularly askew. It’s especially ironic in the EdChoice Scholarship, where most students become eligible based upon the consistently low performance of the public schools they previously attended.

It’s also noteworthy that the assessment results currently available for private-school students deal only with “proficiency”—i.e., whether the student met the state’s standard for “passing” an exam. Since many students utilizing a voucher in Ohio are well below grade level when they enter a private school, in the short term, reporting just proficiency is going to pose problems and give parents and taxpayers incomplete and potentially misleading information regarding school effectiveness. While proficiency remains the long term goal, it’s critical we also know whether students are making progress. Hence Ohio lawmakers would be wise also to require the calculation of value-added scores (learning gains) for voucher students, along with proficiency rates, and to use the value-added scores as a consideration when determining whether the school is serving those youngsters well.

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Overall, Ohio’s private-school-choice programs have a strong accountability foundation in place. To reach their full potential for needy students, however, not to mention taxpayers and parents, ODE should ensure that current law is fully implemented so that parents have the information that they need to make an informed choice. In addition, Ohio legislators should follow the lead of their brethren in Indiana and Louisiana and prevent low-performing private schools (taking value added into account) from participating in the program. 

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