Ohio Voucher Promoters Mislead: EdChoice Vouchers Eat Up Local Dollars and Ruin District Budgets

On Tuesday evening,  the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the American Federation for Children—the group affiliated through the years with Betsy DeVos—sponsored a meeting at my local public library, where the speaker, representing School Choice Ohio, promoted Ohio’s taxpayer-funded, EdChoice school vouchers.

Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers are available to students living in the attendance zones of what are considered “failing” schools.  Ohio is emerging from a three year “safe harbor” period following a change in the high stakes test by which Ohio judges school quality. Next fall, the number of EdChoice voucher-eligible, so called “failing” schools will double—to 475 across the state—reports Patrick O’Donnell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The list of local public schools whose students will be able to qualify for the vouchers next fall is nearly 12 pages long and includes a mass of schools in every big city and a growing number of the state’s inner-ring suburbs. (Cleveland schools do not appear on this list, because the state maintains a separate voucher program in Cleveland.)

The meeting on Tuesday night at the Cleveland Heights Main Library offered coffee and donuts along with several packets about the voucher program and information for prospective voucher parents about School Choice Ohio’s counseling services to help parents qualify for a voucher.  Alyson Miles was Tuesday’s primary speaker.  She is not currently listed on the staff of School Choice Ohio but appears instead as the Deputy Director of Government Affairs at the Ohio office of the American Federation for Children.  She is also, according to the website of School Choice Ohio, one of the three members of  School Choice Ohio’s board of directors.  The other board members are Rabbi Yitz Frank, the Ohio Director of Agudath Israel of America in Cleveland Ohio, and Ann Riddle, Executive Director of the Northwest Ohio Scholarship Fund, located in Sylvania, Ohio—a suburb of Toledo.

In Ohio, to qualify for an EdChoice Voucher, students must have been enrolled previously in a public school unless they are entering Kindergarten. Once a Kindergartner receives a voucher, the student can keep it for twelve years of schooling as long as he or she reapplies every year.

Tuesday’s speaker, Alyson Miles emphasized an odd quirk of Ohio’s law: Students moving to Ohio—families new to the state—can qualify for an EdChoice Voucher without ever having been enrolled in an Ohio public school as long as they move to the attendance zone of one of the qualifying “failing” schools.

Miles provided mistaken information to those in attendance on Tuesday night in one respect.  She repeatedly insisted that vouchers in Ohio are entirely made up of state dollars allocated by the Legislature for that specific purpose.  After she was questioned, Miles repeatedly explained that the vouchers do not drain locally voted school levy dollars out of any school district’s budget.

Miles is wrong.   In many Ohio school districts, an EdChoice voucher—worth $4,650 per K-8 student and $6,000 per high school student—is more than the amount of state per-pupil funding allocated to the school district by the state funding formula. School districts must make up the difference out of locally voted levy dollars.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid. This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.” (Emphasis is mine.)

The amount of dollars carried away from a local school district can be substantial—especially as Kindergarten classes matriculate through the grades.  In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, where Tuesday’s meeting was held, the amount lost to the public schools has been growing by about a million dollars a year—from $1,237,990 in FY16 to $2,256,017 in FY17 to $3,214,454 in FY 18.

Recently in the Washington Post, the director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explained: “Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement.  A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities…  Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Ohio’s theft of money for vouchers and charters right out of school district budgets punishes the state’s most vulnerable school districts and leaves wealthy exurban districts largely untouched.

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Schools Serving Very Poor Children Need Financial Assistance. Instead Ohio Beats Them Up.

Ohio operates a test-and-punish accountability scheme that ranks and rates schools and school districts, and punishes school districts whose scores are low.  All the while, the state has diminished its effort to support public education and equalize funding.

In mid-September, for example, the state released school report cards awarding schools and school districts letter grades—“A” through “F.”  Like two other districts recently taken over by the state after receiving a series of “F” grades, East Cleveland will be seized by the state and assigned a state-appointed overseer CEO to replace its school superintendent and an appointed commission to replace the local school board.  East Cleveland—an economically and racially segregated inner-ring Cleveland suburban school district—is among Ohio’s very poorest.  Historically the residents in the community have voted high millage relative to their incomes to pay for their public schools despite the closure of local industry and the collapse of the economy.  The school districts in two other impoverished communities, Youngstown and Lorain, were taken over in recent years without a subsequent rise in test scores, the state’s chosen metric. Both received “F” grades again this year. The implementation of state takeover has been insensitive and insulting. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March that Krish Mohip, the state overseer CEO in Youngstown, feels he cannot safely move his family to the community where he is in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewing for other jobs. Lorain’s CEO, David Hardy tried to donate the amount of what would be the property taxes on a Lorain house to the school district, when he announced that he does not intend to bring his family to live in Lorain.

EdChoice vouchers are a second high stakes punishment in the school attendance zones of “F”-rated schools. EdChoice gives families the opportunity to opt their children out of “failing” public schools by granting their children a chance to leave at public expense.  Writing for the Heights Observer, Susan Kaeser describes how this works in another Cleveland inner-ring suburban school district: “Access to EdChoice vouchers is tied to Ohio’s deeply flawed education accountability system.  If the aggregate test score data for an individual public school falls short, the school is defined as an EdChoice school.  Anyone residing in the attendance area of that school who could have attended that school is eligible for an EdChoice voucher… Nearly every district that has EdChoice designation serves many high-need students.”

Most students using EdChoice vouchers in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District which Kaeser describes are attending religious schools, and in fact real estate companies have been marketing houses in the state-designated neighborhoods as qualifying for EdChoice vouchers. Children can qualify for one of these vouchers as Kindergartners, without ever attending or intending to enroll in the public school that anchors the neighborhood. As Kaeser explains, “Once a student receives a voucher it can be renewed until the student graduates… Voucher use has grown exponentially as more schools were designated EdChoice and as recipients renew their vouchers.  This year, 176 Kindergarten students received first-time vouchers (without previously enrolling in a public school), adding to the total of more than 650 recipients.  The expected loss to the CH-UH district this year from EdChoice is $3.7 million….”  The rapid expansion of this program is fiscally unsustainable.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter tracks the impact statewide of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers. Over the ten years since the program’s inception, it has grown from 3,100 to 22,153 students.  Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid.  This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.”  While in FY 2007, $10,368,839 was spent statewide for EdChoice vouchers.  By FY 2017, the amount statewide had climbed to $102,688,259.  Over the decade, a total of $649,158,483 of state and local tax dollars was diverted from public schools to private school tuition through EdChoice vouchers.

All of Ohio’s school districts where students qualify for EdChoice vouchers are districts serving very poor children. And yet, last month in a new report Howard Fleeter explains: “(R)esidential taxpayers in the low wealth districts are paying taxes at nearly the same rate as are their higher wealth counterparts… The Tax Effort measure shows that when ability to pay is taken into account, the low wealth districts are levying taxes at the highest rate relative to their income, while the highest wealth districts are levying taxes at the lowest rate relative to income.”  Fleeter continues: “(T)he lowest wealth… districts have seen their share of total state and local resources fall from 26.4% in FY99 to 23.1% in FY19, while the highest wealth… school districts have seen their share of total state and local resources increase from 22.2% in FY99 to 23.4% in FY19.  Unsurprisingly… a variety of equity measures indicate that equity in state and local school operating revenues improved from FY99 to FY 09, but regressed somewhat from FY09 to FY19.”

When he was interviewed by Jim Siegel for the Columbus Dispatch, Fleeter was less technical and more candid about the state’s school funding formula: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Siegel reminds readers about the impact of the 2008 Great Recession, compounded by state tax cuts promoted by Governor John Kasich and passed by the legislature: “GOP leaders… eliminated the tangible personal property tax, which more than a decade ago generated about $1.1 billion per year for schools.  For a time, state officials reimbursed schools for those losses, but that has largely been phased out… And finally, there are Gov. John Kasich’s funding formula and fiscal priorities, including income-tax cuts that have meant an estimated $3 billion less in available revenue each year… Kasich crafted a new formula designed to drive funding to districts with the least ability to raise their own local funds, but Fleeter and public education officials have argued that it doesn’t quite work properly.”

Through various schemes to privatize education—EdChoice and several other voucher programs along with a large charter school sector—Governor Kasich and the Republican legislature have found another method, in addition to the flawed school funding formula, to divert needed state dollars out of public schools across the state.  State takeovers of struggling school districts and EdChoice vouchers are the clearest examples in state policy of punitive, top down programs that blame and punish local educators in poor communities instead of driving resources and support to communities serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Once again, it is appropriate to quote Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explaining in The Testing Charade just how high stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face the overwhelming challenge of student poverty:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

How the Nation’s Two Oldest School Voucher Programs Are Working: Part II—Ohio

School voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland are now over twenty-five years old.  Now Wisconsin and Ohio have expanded statewide what began as stand-alone, big-city programs, and last week, local newspapers in Milwaukee and Cleveland examined these programs.  Today’s post will look at Patrick O’Donnell’s recent Plain Dealer report on vouchers in Cleveland and Ohio. Yesterday’s post covered last week’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s report on Wisconsin vouchers.

While Erin Richards’ piece on Wisconsin explores the fiscal problems for a state that has begun to divert state and local tax dollars to pay for the education of students at private schools, Patrick O’Donnell in Cleveland emphasizes the problem of figuring out whether students at religious schools accepting vouchers receive a superior—or even adequate—education: “The school voucher programs that some federal and state officials want to expand have had mixed test results in Ohio that make it unclear how much more students learn than if they had stayed in their local public schools. Ohio’s voucher programs, which give families grants to help pay tuition at private schools, have a low bar to clear to look successful. Neither the state’s main voucher program, EdChoice, nor a Cleveland-only program is competing with high-scoring suburban districts. Both were created to let families avoid schools the state considered to be failing, so they only have to best the lowest-rated schools. But the private schools receiving voucher dollars have had mixed results, even when compared to these ‘failing’ public schools.”

Here is a caution: As O’Donnell compares the schools, he is using Ohio’s school ratings, based primarily on standardized test scores.  Any comprehensive school rating system would consider myriad other factors.  And, of course, test scores, in the aggregate reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods. (See here and here.)

O’Donnell compares voucher students’ standardized test scores in third and eighth grade and reports that students who have carried vouchers to religious schools score higher in reading and lower in math, “scoring lower—sometimes by a hair, sometimes by a lot—on four of the six state math tests for the same grade. It’s a trend that has held for several years.”

O’Donnell also examines a technical academic paper by David Figlio of the Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research, a study in which Figlio controls for all sorts of factors that may affect scores apart from the quality of the education schools provide: “Figlio found that while voucher students were typically better off financially and stronger academically than students they left behind, they did worse after going to private schools than comparable students who stayed in public schools.”  O’Donnell adds that Figlio’s study “was commissioned by the Fordham Institute, a leading advocate for school choice in Ohio and nationally.”

O’Donnell reports that 97 percent of Ohio school vouchers pay for tuition at religious schools, with Catholic schools dominating the recipients. Comparing the experience of students at public and the religious schools where students are carrying tuition vouchers is difficult according to O’Donnell’s report because religious schools are not required to accept all students even among students who may have qualified for a voucher  Some schools, for example,  accept the vouchers only if students pass admissions tests.  Also O’Donnell notes, “socioeconomic challenges like poverty and income… have a strong relationship to test scores across Ohio and nationally.”  He also lists other factors that contribute to school quality and are not measured by Ohio’s mandated tests—the number of English learners and special education students who are admitted to private schools, attendance and graduation rates.

While his primary analysis compares test scores in grades 3-8, in a companion article O’Donnell examines high schools, comparing public high schools in Cleveland and the religious high schools where students are carrying their tuition vouchers: “Ohio’s school voucher and testing system does not give a good comparison between public high schools and the private high schools that take the vouchers. The private (high) schools don’t want to take the same tests, and usually don’t. And since most voucher high schools have selective admissions with special tests and interviews that most public schools don’t have, test scores are often skewed.”  While in general, high school test scores where comparable, are higher in the religious than the public high schools, O’Donnell notes: “Those gaps, though, don’t take into account how selectively a private school selects its students or how much a school truly helped a student learn. The state doesn’t even track that.” “(C)omparing scores of selective schools to neighborhood schools that accept anyone won’t tell you which school is doing a better job.”

However, Cleveland has established three selective, magnet public specialty high schools. O’Donnell reports that test scores at Cleveland’s selective magnet high schools compare with scores at the city’s most selective Catholic high school: “While private schools that cherry-pick their students often have better-looking test scores, so do public magnet schools with competitive admissions.  In Cleveland, those schools even scored better than schools like St. Ignatius.”  “Cleveland’s Early College High School, the School of Architecture and Design and the School of Science and Medicine all had at least 97.8 percent of their students score as proficient on the reading and math OGT (Ohio Graduation Test)…. While St. Ignatius, Benedictine and St. Joseph high schools all scored as well as those district schools in reading, all three private schools had worse math results—still strong but below those of the district magnets.”

O’Donnell’s reporting of higher math performance scores in the public high schools reflects a broad research study of private vs. public schools, reported by University of Illinois professors, Chris and Sarah Lubienski, in their book, The Public School Advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home… But after further investigation and more targeted analyses, the results held up. And they held up… even when we used different models and variables in the analyses…  (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, pp. xvii-xviii)