A commonsense approach to accountability for the EdChoice Scholarship program

Private schools that enroll students through the Ohio EdChoice Program (the state's school voucher program) should be held accountable for their academic results on a sliding scale, according to a report issued today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The more voucher-bearing students a private school enrolls, the more accountability it should face from the state, according to the report, When Private Schools Take Public Dollars: What's the Place of Accountability in School Voucher Programs? (see here).

The report comes as the Ohio General Assembly considers changes to the accountability requirements for private schools participating in Ohio's Educational Choice Scholarship Program. The program currently serves about 10,000 students statewide.

The question policymakers face is, "What does smart accountability look like in practice?"

"It makes no sense, and is in fact costly for the school and the state, to require every student in a private school to take the state achievement tests if just a handful of voucher students are enrolled in the school. But that's what language in the current budget bill calls for," said Chad Aldis, executive director for School Choice Ohio, and one of the experts contributing to the report.

"If enacted, the current language would not give the state or parents any information about how well the EdChoice scholarship is working because it will not measure the academic gains of students utilizing the scholarship," he said.

School voucher opponents have long held that it is a double standard to hold public schools accountable for academic results under the No Child Left Behind Act and state accountability systems, while allowing private schools to accept state-funded vouchers without any accountability to taxpayers for academic results.

The new Fordham report addresses these concerns and reflects the opinions of 20 bipartisan school-choice experts, program administrators, and private school representatives. In addition to Aldis, report experts included David Driscoll, former Massachusetts' education commissioner; Andrew Rotherham, Education Sector co-founder; Jeb Bush, former Florida governor; Howard Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools; Fredrick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute; and Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy and educational research at the National Catholic Educational Association; and others.

Here are the report's highlights:

  • The report's experts generally agree that participating private schools should not face any new regulation of their day-to-day affairs, including teacher certification requirements, school admission requirements, or prohibitions on teaching religion in the curriculum.
  • They believe there is value in helping parents make informed choices by providing data about how well their own children are performing in the voucher-receiving schools. They generally agree that voucher programs, as a whole, should be rigorously evaluated by third-party researchers (e.g., are they making a difference in the academic achievement of children in the program?).
  • However, there is disagreement among experts as to how much accountability schools that take voucher-bearing students should actually face. At one end are those who would "let the market rule." These folks believe that parent choice is all that matters and schools should not have to participate in state assessment programs or release test results. At the other end of the spectrum are those who say, "Treat private schools like charter schools." This group would like the state to force the same academic accountability system on voucher-receiving schools as faced by traditional district schools and charter schools no matter how many, or few, students the schools serve.

Fordham's recommendation to lawmakers is a compromise-a sliding scale approach to private school accountability. The more voucher-bearing students a school enrolls, the greater its obligation for transparency and accountability.

Currently in Ohio, voucher-bearing students take the state's achievement tests, but these results are not publicly reported or used in any meaningful way per public accountability.

Ohio, as the Fordham report argues, can improve public accountability for its private schools that accept voucher-bearing students by:

  • Having the Ohio Department of Education publicly report the achievement results of voucher-bearing students to parents and taxpayers.
  • Mandating school-wide testing on a sliding scale. For example, lawmakers might decide to extend state achievement tests to all students in a private school that enrolls more than 50 percent voucher-bearing students. 
  • Conducting a third-party study of the Educational Choice Scholarship Program, including an analysis of student achievement over time.

Read the full report here and Education Week's coverage here.

By The Ohio Education Gadfly team

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