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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