Should Ohio follow the way of the Hoosiers on school vouchers?

With the GOP dominating so many state capitols and governors' mansions, it shouldn't come as a surprise that legislation aimed at expanding school choice is on the rise. In Ohio, the most prominent (but certainly not the only) bill would expand the state's existing voucher program and also create two additional voucher/scholarship programs ? one aimed toward special education students, and the other aimed toward students attending schools anywhere across the state and meeting a fairly generous income requirement. Terry wrote about HB 136 last week, specifically pondering whether targeting scholarship to families making up to $100,000 annually was prudent during trying fiscal times, and whether the state should provide scholarships to families already paying private school tuition. ?

And as HB 136 is up for debate in the coming weeks, we'd predict that the accountability provisions within the bill may also be hotly contested. Should private schools receiving voucher students be subject to testing/accountability?? Does this infringe on their rights? What would this look like in practice? Why should we pump taxpayer dollars into schools without commensurate accountability requirements? (A 2009 Fordham report suggested a sliding-scale approach: as a private school enrolls more voucher students, ?the greater its obligation for transparency and accountability.?)??

As Ohio delves deeper into this debate ? precipitated not just by HB 136 but also by Gov. Kasich's plans to expand the EdChoice program in terms of both the number of scholarships and eligibility requirements surrounding them ? the state should pay attention to what's happening next door.

The Indiana House just passed House Bill 1003, which would create tax credit scholarships for families making up to $60,000 a year. Proponents of the bill contend that this represents a significant expansion of eligibility to the middle class, rather than limiting vouchers to only poor kids or those attending chronically underperforming schools. Ohioans in support of vouchers have expressed a similar sentiment (that choice shouldn't be limited to only the neediest families) but compared to Ohio's HB 136, Indiana's $60,000 eligibility threshold is far more targeted and means-tested. Lawmakers in the Hoosier State had to compromise on this, reducing the eligibility threshold from $80,000 a year (for a family of four) to $60,000 and also limited the number of kids receiving the voucher in its first few years. Ohio lawmakers may be expected to do the same, as it's far more politically palatable ? especially during a fiscal crunch ? to subsidize choice for the poorest families instead of for a broad swath of families, many of whom can already afford to pay for private school tuition from their own pockets.

Second, Indiana's accountability provisions are pretty rigorous and worth taking a look at. Specifically, private schools receiving voucher students will receive an academic designation by the state. Schools placed in ?either of the lowest two categories or designations for two consecutive years? will not be allowed to receive new voucher students the following year, until the school moves higher up in the ratings. The longer the school is stuck in the bottom two ratings, the longer they are put on probation (can't receive more students with scholarships).

Ohio's legislation, in comparison, plans to require ?to the greatest extent possible? value-added performance analyses on students receiving a voucher, which will be posted by the Ohio Department of Education but will not lead to any sort of consequences in the event that private schools produce poor results for voucher students.

In sum, while more school choice is a good thing in theory, lots of questions remain. Ohio needs to flesh out details related to accountability and financial feasibility, and might find some good ideas next door.

-Jamie Davies O'Leary

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