Making school choice work for kids

Ohio is on the verge of adding an enormous new private school choice
scholarship to its existing array of choice programs and policies. How
this new program will work in practice, how many private schools – and
students – will actually participate, how much it will cost, and the
mechanisms by which it will account for its use of taxpayer dollars are
all important questions in need of cogent answers. The Buckeye State has
been at the epicenter of school choice in the United States since the
late 1990s and we have learned some hard lessons along the way.

More than 75,000 students are now enrolled in some 300-plus
bricks-and-mortar charter schools. The EdChoice Scholarship Program,
which (per the biennial budget signed by Governor Kasich this summer)
will expand from 14,000 to 30,000 students aided in the 2011-12 school
year and 60,000 thereafter, provides vouchers to students in failing
public schools so that they can attend private schools of their choice
(many of them Catholic schools), while the state’s Autism Scholarship
Program has served more than 1,300 youngsters since the program began in
2003. Over 7,200 students participate in the Cleveland Scholarship and
Tutoring Program, Ohio’s oldest.  In recent months, Ohio added the Jon
Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program, which will, starting in
2012, provide vouchers of up to $20,000 to students with Individual
Education Plans (I.E.P.s).

Ohio’s school districts have also launched a number of choice
programs: magnet schools and alternative programs, STEM high schools,
and Early College Academies. (The state has some excellent Career
Technical Centers, too.) And some 429 districts allow students from
anywhere in the state to attend their schools via open
enrollment. (Another 90 allow students from adjacent districts to
enroll.)  And, of course, thousands of families have moved to different
houses or apartments in pursuit of better educational options for their
daughters and sons.

Besides these bricks-and-mortar options, Ohio has 27 virtual schools
serving 33,000 students. The digital learning sector is sure to continue
expanding rapidly in coming years, and this growth will likely lead to
powerful educational innovation, including hybrids that blend
classroom-based and on-line learning, as 24/7 outside-of-school learning
opportunities for children (and adults). Nationally, more than half of
all children now attend some kind of “school of choice” and Ohio’s
number is surely higher.

Nor is that the end of it. Other choice
bills are now under consideration in the General Assembly. The most
sweeping of these is House Bill (HB) 136. It would create the Parental
Choice and Taxpayer Saving Scholarship (PACT) Program, which would award
private school scholarships (aka vouchers) worth up to $4,563 apiece to
children from families with annual household incomes of up to about
$62,000 for a family of four. Based on 2010 U.S. Census numbers,
slightly more than half of all households in the state could be eligible
for the full voucher amount and another 25 percent could be eligible
for smaller vouchers awarded on a sliding family income scale up to
$95,000. Ohio already has three statewide publicly funded voucher
programs, so this would be the fourth, and in time it would likely dwarf
the other three in numbers of recipients and budgetary impact.

It’s controversial, of course, for all the
usual reasons: because its scale means it could impact every district in
the state, because it would transfer public dollars from districts to
private schools, and because it is being proposed in times of
diminishing resources and shrinking enrollments in many places. There
are additional concerns about the program (see Emmy’s legislative recap
below).

Setting aside the pros and cons of HB136
for a moment, the genie of school choice is out of the bottle in Ohio
and we are likely to see such programs continue to expand. The question
for state policy makers is how to ensure that this widening of options
is matched by improved school quality and ultimate gains in student
achievement. It little avails a child to choose a school that’s no more
effective than the one he or she is exiting. At the end of the day,
improved achievement has to be the state’s foremost education policy
goal.

 Accountability
is the partner of choice. The latter creates space for innovation and
options while the former drives change and pushes for continuous
improvement.
 
   
 

Regrettably
many of Ohio’s current school-choice options don’t cut the mustard when
it comes to results. When adding more such options, therefore, lawmakers
should take pains to ensure that the quality of the choices keeps pace
with their quantity and availability. Else the state risks repeating its
mixed track record with, say, charter schools. Those public schools of
choice are finally strengthening but only as a result of stronger
accountability provisions for both schools and their authorizers,
including the involuntary closure of weak schools and even a feckless
authorizer. Also helping here are the state’s performance rankings for
all public schools (district and charter). 

As new
choice programs come on-line, they should be incorporated into a
rigorous accountability system, preferably one that allows their results
to be directly compared with the schools that kids are leaving.
Indiana’s big new voucher program, for example, incorporates a common
rating system with five performance tiers for every school that receives
state dollars (including private schools enrolling voucher students).
All private schools receiving vouchers are graded annually and those
that fail to perform adequately for two consecutive years may not enroll
new students until their performance improves.

Accountability
is the partner of choice. The latter creates space for innovation and
options while the former drives change and pushes for continuous
improvement. Accountability exposes poor performers and charlatans,
while also highlighting successful schools.

School
choice is ramping up in Ohio, as across the country. To maximize its
potential to educate children well in a time of tight resources, this
state, like others, must be ruthless about performance. The challenge
facing policymakers is that, while many voices clamor for widened choice
and the opportunities that go with it, far fewer demand accountability
for performance. Getting the balance right will determine whether or not
school choice in Ohio ultimately succeeds or fails to improve student
outcomes.

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