Ohio’s EdChoice Program–a new, statewide voucher program–enrolled about 2,600 students in private schools this spring for the 2006-07 school year. As students were preparing to head back to class for the fall semester, even more were in the process of signing up.
The EdChoice Program was part of House Bill 66, which included the state budget and was signed in the summer of last year. Two enrollment periods were held: April 3-June 9, 2006, and July 21-August 4, 2006.
Operating Statewide Program
Under the legislation, as many as 14,000 students who attend schools designated by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) as being in academic emergency or on academic watch can receive scholarships to attend private schools. If more than 14,000 students apply, priority is given to families at or below 200 percent of the federally defined poverty level.
Students in kindergarten through eighth grade can receive vouchers for up to $4,250, while high school students can receive up to $5,000. If a chosen school charges less than those amounts, the state will pay only the tuition amount. Schools cannot charge families at or below 200 percent of the poverty level more than $4,250 for K-8 students, or more than $5,000 for high school students.
Once a student receives a scholarship, he or she will have priority for a scholarship in future years. The participating student will continue to be eligible even if the public school he or she previously attended is no longer on academic watch or in academic emergency.
Students who are ineligible for the vouchers are those already attending private school, homeschooled students, or those living in Cleveland, which has operated its own citywide voucher program since the 1996-97 school year.
Identifying Failing Schools
At press time, the ODE had identified 99 schools in 23 school districts whose students are eligible for the vouchers. The majority are in urban centers such as Columbus and Cincinnati.
Private schools must choose to participate in the program. Once in, they can accept or reject students who apply. Participating private schools must have a valid state charter and comply with ODE’s operating standards.
At press time, approximately 300 private schools had chosen to participate–including Catholic schools, Protestant and Jewish religious schools, and nonreligious schools. Though neither School Choice Ohio nor the ODE could say how many private schools are operating in the 23 districts with failing schools, both agencies said participating private schools are not required to be in the district from which they accept students. According to School Choice Ohio, one private school in Toledo is 10 miles from the nearest failing public school but has attracted new students through EdChoice for the coming school year.
Students in the program attending private schools must continue to take the same state achievement tests as their public school peers.
Judging the Program
Matthew Carr, director of education policy at the Buckeye Institute, a Columbus-based free-market research organization, said Ohio EdChoice is a “well-conceived program.”
“Theoretically, it’s the kind of program you want, because eligibility is based on school ratings,” Carr explained.
Susan Zanner, executive director of School Choice Ohio, agreed.
“I do think there are great opportunities with the program, and it was a product of bold legislative leadership,” Zanner said.
But the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) disagrees. Communications Director Lisa Zellner said Ohio EdChoice assumes that by sending students to private schools they will automatically improve academically but that’s not the case, she claimed.
Zellner said studies–including one released on July 14 by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the U.S. Department of Education’s data-collection arm, and older ones focusing on Cleveland’s voucher program–have shown students in private schools perform no better than those in public schools. Those studies have been questioned, however. (For a discussion of the flaws in the NCES study, see “The School Choice Movement’s Greatest Failure,” by Andrew Coulson, on page 15 of this issue.)
Signing Up Students
Because only 2,600 of the 46,000 eligible students statewide signed up for the vouchers this spring, critics such as Zellner said many parents “realize that a private school is not a better option.”
“Even though ODE has marketed it heavily,” Zellner said, “it’s interesting that folks aren’t jumping at it.”
But Zanner and Carr said they were not surprised by the low initial turnout–nor were they discouraged by it.
“With any new program, there are challenges,” Zanner said. Both she and Carr noted many parents of children who could qualify for vouchers are not sure of their eligibility. “I’d like to see a notification–a letter [sent to parents from either the failing school or the ODE] that shows that they are eligible,” Zanner said.
Untangling Red Tape
Both Carr and Zanner noted the application process can be financially daunting, as most private schools have application and registration fees. Zanner hoped in the future those fees could be paid with scholarship funds.
Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice, a school choice advocacy group based in Phoenix, said the enrollment figures confirm the public’s demand for education alternatives.
“Usually enrollment in school choice programs begins slowly and builds over time, but [Ohio’s] numbers demonstrate dramatic demand for school choice,” Bolick noted in a June 12 news release.
Bolick compared Ohio’s 5.5 percent eligibility participation rate with the 0.7 percent rate at which eligible students participated in the first year of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 1990, and the 0.3 percent rate at which eligible students participated in the first year Florida operated its statewide voucher program in 1999. Bolick also cited the two-year-old citywide voucher program in Washington, DC, which only enrolls 1.7 percent of eligible students.
Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
For more information …
“Lessons for Improving Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher Program,” by Matthew Carr and Greg Forster, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #19525.