Anticipating School Vouchers in Ohio - with Great Doubt

Carolyn S. Ridenour

On the eve of implementing the Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship Program, unanswered questions remain. Can Ohio promise eligible families that their children who are now enrolled in schools rated in “Academic Emergency” or “Academic Watch” will be better served in private, religious, or alternative public schools? And, further, what about those children who will be left behind in these failing schools? In short, will Ohioans be well served by vouchers?
 

There is insubstantial data to support the theory that vouchers raise student achievement. Even if the data did link vouchers to higher test scores, choice schemes are, by design, limited in number. Even voucher proponents hesitate to assert that choice will be universal across all communities in the country, including Ohio.

More troubling is the fact that advocates have too easily moved from tentative research conclusions to comprehensive policy recommendations. Even conservative policy wonks, such as Frederick Hess, have cautioned that vouchers have “too often been trumpeted uncritically by choice proponents rather than used to encourage rigorous policy considerations.”

A large-scale 2001 RAND study suggested that other policy options (such as smaller class sizes in public schools) might hold greater promise for more children. Attempts at improving Ohio’s public schools by indirectly supporting Ohio’s private schools through choice initiatives may ultimately fail both. Desperate urban schools serving poor families require substantially increased, not decreased, financial support. Families with the least access to data about school quality are likely those left behind if the choice experiment fails.

The intentions of voucher advocates are admirable—to advocate for the neediest children and to remove as many as possible from failing schools. Unfortunately, the advocates proffer a seemingly simple solution to an acknowledged complex problem. Their efforts fail to take into account the vast majority of children who will not benefit because already limited educational resources will be further diminished by a voucher system. Vouchers hold out only false hope to Ohioans and create potentially harmful consequences for those left behind.

Despite the 2002 Zelman decision, the church-state dichotomy prevails. Two-thirds of those using Cleveland’s voucher program never attended public schools, raising the possibility that a major part of these Ohio public monies may only subsidize private and religious sponsored schools and their existing students. And, finally, those religious schools opening their doors to former public school students perhaps pay a price, too. Little evidence suggests that religious schools are rushing to build classrooms; the demand side of the economic argument dominates the discourse while the supply side seems barely audible. Perhaps there is doubt that a strong faith-based school culture can withstand dilution when students are enrolled whose families do not adhere to the faith, but choose based solely on academic grounds.

Finally, perhaps some advocates for change are better at creating policy than they are at ensuring its effective implementation. One need look no farther than the creation of charter schools. A proliferation of such schools was established without adequate oversight and authorization. Chester Finn, Jr. and Michael Petrilli, both of the Fordham Institute, suggested in their recent National Review online article that while charter authorizers are getting more selective, they still found that : “…almost half of all authorizers practice limited oversight of their schools, demonstrating scant concern either for school quality…or for compliance…”

Ohioans would be well served to put their resources into improving Ohio’s urban public district schools rather than to invest in an experiment that is poorly designed and even more poorly understood.

Carolyn S. Ridenour is a professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Dayton.