Testing and regulations don’t scare private schools from voucher programs

In the early years of Ohio’s voucher programs, proponents of private school choice cautioned that schools wouldn’t participate if government asked too much of them in the way of regulations and accountability for student achievement. That was certainly a plausible theory at the time – after all, when the EdChoice Scholarship program launched in 2005, Ohio’s public schools were only just getting used to our increased battery of state tests. But evidence from a new report shows that the theory doesn’t hold true today, and that policymakers could pursue expanded accountability for private schools—especially when it comes to transparency about student achievement and progress.

The Fordham Institute’s national team commissioned David Stuit of Basis Policy Research and his colleague Sy Doan to examine closely thirteen existing voucher and tax credit scholarship programs and describe the nature and extent of their regulations as well as how many private schools participate in them (and how many do not). They also asked them to survey private schools in communities served by four of the country’s most prominent voucher programs (including EdChoice and the Cleveland Scholarship & Tutoring Program) to see how heavily regulations and program requirements weigh in schools’ decision whether to participate.

The result is the new Fordham report School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring. What does it tell us?

Specific to Ohio, Stuit and Doan determined that:

  • Ohio’s voucher programs have the second-most extensive testing-and-accountability requirements of all programs in the nation.
  • Considering a total of 10 factors, Ohio’s programs are the third-most regulated in the country, behind Indiana’s and Milwaukee's.

Other key findings include:

  • “Regulation” is not schools’ foremost concern when deciding whether to participate (lack of voucher-eligible families is).
  • Only 25 percent of schools listed state testing requirements as very or extremely important to their decision about whether to participate.
  • Just 16 percent said the same about public reporting of test results, but more than half are protective of their admissions criteria and religious practices.
  • Fifty-eight percent of non-participating schools cited paperwork burdens and mandatory open-enrollment policies as important factors in their decisions not to sign up.
  • Catholic schools are the least likely to have their decisions about participation affected by regulations. (In Ohio, fully 60 percent of EdChoice-participating private schools are Catholic ones and they serve about 70 percent of all EdChoice students.)

Currently twenty-two thousand Ohio students attend a private school using a state-funded voucher. Two years ago lawmakers raised the cap on EdChoice vouchers to 60,000 slots statewide (reserved for kids in low-performing public schools) and launched a new special-needs scholarship. In his recently unveiled FY2014-15 state budget, Governor Kasich has proposed expanding voucher eligibility to children from low-income families and K-3 students in schools that fail to meet a minimum grade on the new early learning report card component. Alongside this growth in publicly funded school choice should come an appropriate increase in accountability of participating schools and whether they are helping students succeed. This report provides evidence that they open to just that.

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