Ohio Voucher Program Sparks Improvements in Public Schools

Published November 1, 2008

A study by a national education group shows the competition provided by Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship program is having positive effects not only on voucher recipients but on the state’s public schools as a whole.

According to the study by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a national organization based in Indianapolis, the increased competition provided by the EdChoice voucher program—available to students in underperforming schools statewide—has spurred improvements in public schools. The analysis found in the 2006-07 school year—the program’s first year of operation—public schools showed positive effects in three grades, while no negative effects were found in the other seven grades evaluated.

The changes were so substantial researchers predict the enhancements will result in a one-standard-deviation improvement in the academic performance of public schools three to four years into the program. The findings were consistent among school types regardless of the quality of the school.

“What this shows is that vouchers do benefit students who remain in public schools, not just the students who use them” said Greg Forster, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation and author of the August report. “The study also shows that voucher programs should be larger and more universal so we can take advantage of these positive aspects.”

Helping Students

The EdChoice program allows students from underperforming schools to attend participating private schools.

Up to 14,000 students can take advantage of the scholarship program if they attend schools designated as being in “academic emergency” or under “academic watch” for two of the past three years. Each Ohio school is ranked according to performance on a six-category scale: Excellent with distinction, excellent, effective, continuous improvement, on academic watch, and in academic emergency.

According to the Ohio Department of Education’s 2007-2008 Guide for Ohio’s Report Card System, being on academic watch means a school has met only 31 to 49.9 percent of 30 performance indictors for school evaluation. A school in academic emergency has met zero to 30.9 percent of the indictors. Performance indicators include meeting or exceeding the state requirement of 93 percent of students in attendance and 90 percent graduation.

Changing Expectations

Education experts say the marked improvements in Ohio’s public schools are to be expected after the implementation of a voucher program.

“I wasn’t surprised to see the improvements because I’ve never bought the argument that school vouchers and scholarships hurt public schools,” said Chad Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio, a Columbus-based organization that aims to protect and expand children’s educational options. “And now we have evidence. This is a very important step toward getting greater acceptance for voucher programs. Many times people prey on the fears that this will hurt public schools.”

Even elected officials have noticed a positive change in Ohio’s public schools since the voucher program was put into play.

“They became very focused on improving educational outcomes,” said Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted (R-Kettering). “Public schools began to deliver more individualized services by starting schools that were not all one-size-fits-all schools. Some of the individualized programs have been single-gender schools and academies devoted to life skills. We are seeing the public school system offer programs that are unique to the individual needs of the children and desires of parents, which is making them much more responsive to public schools.”

Tired Old Arguments

Even though Forster’s study shows vouchers to be a positive for public schools, he doesn’t think it will stop opponents from arguing against the programs.

“This is one more in a long line of empirical studies finding that vouchers improve public schools,” Forster said. “No study has found that vouchers hurt public schools. But that has not stopped the other side from making that claim. I think the evidence will continue to be on the side of choice, but that probably won’t stop teachers unions from saying that vouchers hurt public schools.”

According to Forster’s report, Ohio should continue to see marked improvements in the state’s public school system. Because the first year of the EdChoice program was its most restricted, the successes noted in the first year of operation should increase as constraints fall away.

Husted said the expected additional improvements make a good case for bringing more school choice to the state.

“It’s hard to argue with success,” Husted said. “And when you can show legislators and opinion leaders how school choice is making a real difference in the lives of students in terms of both their human development and academic progress, it becomes more difficult to argue against these changes.

“I think you are going to continue to see public schools make themselves more attractive to families and school-aged children. If they want more students, they need to deliver,” Husted noted.

Building on Success

Husted hopes the Friedman Foundation’s findings will help in his efforts to expand Ohio’s voucher programs in the near future.

“One of the things we hope to accomplish is a voucher program for special-needs students,” Husted said. “We have a bill that has passed the Senate and is now in the House, which we are hoping to pass on to Gov. [Ted] Strickland. He vetoed it in this general assembly, so we now have a standalone bill. We hope that as he begins to see the successes of the EdChoice voucher program, he will not veto the bill and will instead sign it into law.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“Promising Start: An Empirical Analysis of How EdChoice Vouchers Affect Ohio Public Schools,” by Greg Forster, Ph.D., Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, August 2008: http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/friedman/downloadFile.do?id=311