Study: School Choice Would Revitalize Ohio Cities

Published July 1, 2004

Establishing school choice in “education empowerment zones” would revitalize Ohio’s six largest cities–Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo–according to a new study by The Buckeye Institute, a public policy think tank in Columbus, Ohio.

In the zones, parents would have access not only to a growing number of Community Schools (Ohio’s charter schools) but also to a voucher worth $5,250 to attend a private school. According to Buckeye, the education benefit would bring middle-income families into the cities and reverse decades of urban flight to the suburbs.

Of Ohio’s six largest cities, only Columbus has not experienced population declines over the past few decades. One of the impediments to encouraging middle-income families to live within the city limits is the poor quality of city schools. Families with children are willing to spend more money to purchase essentially the same house if it is in a neighborhood with better schools. Without quality schools, such families are unwilling to consider urban living.

“All too often, attempts to encourage urban renewal and get families to move back into cities fail to address one of the largest stumbling blocks: a lack of access to good schools,” said Joshua Hall, director of research at The Buckeye Institute and the study’s lead author. “Education Empowerment Zones would provide all city residents access to quality schools.”

Without families, urban revitalization cannot be realized, explain the authors of the March 2004 study, “Education Empowerment Zones: Revitalizing Ohio’s Cities Through School Choice.” The presence of childless professionals is insufficient.

“Working and middle class families with children are vital to neighborhood and city building because they have higher incomes and are more economically and socially stable,” said Hall.

The study proposes the establishment of “education empowerment zones” to provide education alternatives to families through school vouchers, the opening of new Community Schools, and the conversion of existing public schools to Community Schools. As well as providing more educational options for parents, competition among those schools would prompt traditional public schools to improve. Quality education options also would reduce neighborhood income segregation as wealthier families would be attracted into low-income neighborhoods by high-quality schools.

Using estimates from an earlier study by Duke University economist Thomas Nechyba, the authors conclude the offer of a voucher would mean total private school attendance in all six cities would rise from 60,000 to 94,000.

To ease the initial costs of the voucher program, the Buckeye authors recommend phasing it in over six years, with the voucher amount increasing $500 annually from a $2,250 base until it met the target amount of $5,250. The phase-in would reduce the first-year total program cost from more than $300 million to roughly $100 million. The maximum cost in the sixth year would be $316 million. The authors believe the benefits will substantially outweigh the costs.

“On a per-pupil basis, private schools are considerably cheaper than public schools,” states the report. “The savings from moving public school students into the private schools, coupled with the additional benefits of encouraging two-parent families back to the city, will eventually outweigh the short-term cost of implementing EEZs (Education Empowerment Zones).”

To offset the cost of the proposal, Buckeye identified almost two dozen programs administered by the Ohio Department of Education that could be eliminated or reduced “without an appreciable change in student outcomes.”

Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The March 2004 report from The Buckeye Institute, “Education Empowerment Zones: Revitalizing Ohio’s Cities through School Choice,” by Joshua C. Hall, Samuel R. Staley, Matthew S. Hisrich, and Aengus L. Barry, is available online at