Districts can compete effectively for kids in a choice world

Governor Kasich’s budget plan, now being debated in the House, calls for expanding the state’s Educational Choice Scholarship program. This statewide voucher program is one of four public voucher programs currently available to parents and students in the Buckeye State. Together these programs allow about 22,500 students to use publicly funded vouchers to attend a private or parochial school of their choice. The governor’s proposal would provide, on a first come first serve basis, vouchers starting in 2013-14 for any kindergartner with a household income less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level – about $46,000 a year for a family of four. Voucher amounts would be up to $4,250 a year, and participating schools could not charge tuition above this amount.

In 2014-15, voucher eligibility would extend to all students in grades K-3 in a school building that gets low marks in the early literacy measure on the state’s new report card. The funding for the voucher will not be deducted from a school district’s state aid, but rather be paid out directly by the state. Kasich’s budget allocates $8.5 million in fiscal year 2014 for 2,000 new vouchers and $17 million in 2015 for up to 4,000 new vouchers.

Despite the modest scale of this proposed growth, and the fact the state will cover the voucher amounts, district educators are up in arms about the expansion. Yellow Springs’ Superintendent Mario Basora captured the view of many district officials across the state when he told the Dayton Daily News, “I think it ultimately has the effect of undermining a good quality public education…In an era when we keep being told the funds are low and we continually have to make cuts, I’m concerned we are taking public funds and spreading them around to private schools in this way.”

Basora’s worries echo earlier school choice debates in Ohio. The first voucher program goes back to 1995. Ohio’s lawmakers at the time considered a “pilot” voucher program for Cleveland and other cities. That pilot would have granted vouchers for up to 7,000 students as part of a five-year study to see whether private schools do a better job than public schools, and would have actually included randomized trials to gauge the academic impact of vouchers on poor students in these cities. But, the plan was ultimately scuttled by the teacher unions and traditional education groups. Critics of the day included then state school board president Oliver Ocasek who declared, “This [voucher] plan is the greatest threat to the public schools we have ever faced.”

These are debates Fordham knows well and has been engaged in for years. In 1997, we worked with local allies and national partners to launch a privately funded scholarship program called Parents Advancing Choice in Education (PACE). The idea at the time was to provide privately funded vouchers to low-income Dayton parents so they could afford to move their children into better schools of their choice. It was hoped that the PACE voucher program could: 1) provide a safety valve for kids stuck in long-suffering schools and 2) inject competition into the Dayton Public Schools (DPS), thereby raising the level of teaching and learning across the city.

When the PACE program was announced publicly, then DPS superintendent James Williams called the program a “wake-up call” and warned that the “district would have to cut staff if it lost the $3.6 million in state funding that would be eliminated by the loss of 1,000 Dayton students to private schools.” PACE ultimately provided more than 6,000 scholarships over the last decade valued at about $9 million. Not long after the launch of PACE, Ohio passed a charter school law and in subsequent years passed various laws to expand vouchers. In 2008, the Dayton Daily News referred to Dayton as a nationally recognized school-choice mecca, and noted “PACE was an early catalyst for change.”

School choice, in its now myriad and varied forms, has had a profound impact on Dayton and the Dayton Public Schools. No doubt about that, but it has not meant the demise of the school district or the undermining of public education. In fact, the school district lost more students to the city’s overall decline and family flight from 1990 to 2000 (6,295 students) than it has lost to school choice over the last decade (3,661 students). Graph 1 shows that the Dayton Public Schools have, despite facing stiff competition from 30+ charter schools and various public and private voucher programs, largely held its own per retaining students in recent years. In looking at trends over time, interestingly enough, charter schools in Dayton have lost more students to the voucher programs than has the district.

School choice in Ohio is moving to the suburbs, and like their urban district colleagues of an earlier generation, they are afraid they will see the demise, or at least weakening, of their districts because of the competition. The experience from Dayton, however, makes clear that school districts can compete for kids no matter how fierce the competition.

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