Status of School Vouchers—30 Years After Milwaukee Vouchers and 25 Years After Cleveland Vouchers Began

Milwaukee, the oldest publicly funded, private school voucher program in the United States just marked its 30th anniversary. Wisconsin vouchers have been a model for voucher expansion all over the country, which makes this a good time to review the impact of the growth of diversion of tax dollars to cover private school costs.

In a two part review for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at the Marquette University Law School reflects on the operation and public policy impact of the now 30-year-old Milwaukee voucher program, and more generally on the implications of the growing use of school vouchers.

Borsuk begins by noting that in Wisconsin, vouchers are now so old they have lost some of their luster. He believes the public ought to be watching more closely: “In Wisconsin, the sector wars between public school people and school choice people are kind of old hat. The hottest cup of coffee served in the last generation of education around here seems lukewarm now. But that is also a good reason to re-cap the impact of providing public support for thousands of children to attend private and religious schools….”

Based on his study of the Milwaukee voucher program over its 30 year history, Borsuk offers 10 primarily descriptive observations:

  1. “The voucher movement is big. It started out in Fall 1991 with 337 students in seven schools… By last fall, about 28,000 children, around a quarter of all Milwaukee children receiving publicly funded education, were going to about 115 private schools.”
  2. “It really is school choice… (N)o one has ever been required or assigned to use a voucher to go to a private school… Thousands of parents want their kids to attend private and, most cases, religious schools, and vouchers make that possible.”
  3. “Vouchers haven’t solved the success gaps in education.  One of the primary claims of voucher supporters… was that giving parents more freedom to choose schools, coupled with competition among schools… would drive big improvements in overall academic success…. Nope. Overall, the reading and math scores of students using vouchers aren’t much different than students in Milwaukee Public Schools—and proficiency rates in both streams of schools have been generally unchanged… at depressingly low levels. Whatever is needed to… start up booming academic achievement, vouchers aren’t it.”
  4. “Vouchers have impacted Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) negatively… (O)verall, in large part due to voucher use and charter enrollment, enrollment in MPS has fallen steadily for more than a decade, and that is not good for the system… Also, MPS has a higher percentage of students with special needs and students who have chronic behavior problems than schools in other sectors have.”
  5. “The voucher movement is religious… (F)or the last five years, more than $200 million a year in state money has been spent on vouchers, the strong majority of it at religious schools. Those schools cover a wide range of religions—Catholic, Lutheran, other Christian denominations, Muslim, Jewish—and there are almost no limits on how religion is taught or practiced in those schools.  Both Wisconsin and U.S. supreme courts have ruled it is not a violation of separation of church and state, on the theory that the state is supporting parents choosing schools and not the state choosing schools.”
  6. “Milwaukee taught the country. One important lesson was how not to do vouchers… People with limited or dubious qualifications opened schools… Some schools were outrageously bad.  Many were just mediocre and poorly run.  It was only by launching regulations and creating some oversight that bad financial practices and… bad educational practice was reined in and many schools closed.”
  7. “School choice movement is stable. In the 2010s, it seemed like every two years, when the state budget was developed, big changes were made…. Voucher programs were added for Racine, for the rest of Wisconsin, and for students with special needs… Now, especially with split control of state government, nothing is changing.”
  8. “Vouchers keep private schools going… At many private schools, more than 90%  of students are supported by vouchers of more than $8,000 per student per year… Milwaukee has a much more vibrant private school sector than many comparable cities.  Is this a public good?…  (S)aying vouchers are keeping the private school sector going is stating a fact.”
  9. “Vouchers fractured education politics… The intense battles between public school people… and voucher people meant there wasn’t a united front in responding to the needs of all the children in the city.  The division and divisiveness remain….”
  10. “The voucher school roster has improved… (T)he closing of many of the poorest schools has moved the overall record of private schools in a positive direction.”

Borsuk’s analysis presents a pretty objective analysis of many aspects of Wisconsin vouchers, but he entirely fails to address what across many states is the most serious concern: vouchers eat up a huge and growing portion of state education funding in Wisconsin and other states where voucher programs have grown over the years. Borsuk points out that the Milwaukee school district’s loss of students has been bad for the public schools.  What he doesn’t mention is that as students leave for private schools, in some states they carry the voucher funding out of their local school district’s budget.  But even when the state pays directly for the cost of the voucher, the school district loses the voucher student’s per-pupil state funding, and because many school district costs are fixed, the district loses funds needed for programming for the majority of a community’s students—the children enrolled in the public schools.

While Borsuk doesn’t mention the fiscal impact on public schools of the growth of vouchers across his state, in a 2017 brief from the National Education Policy Center, the University of Wisconsin’s Ellie Bruecker does evaluate the fiscal impact of Wisconsin’s vouchers on the state’s public schools:  “The program as currently structured appears likely to exacerbate existing inequities in state school financing. Taxpayers in many communities will be burdened with higher tax costs without seeing that burden translate into more spending on students attending local public schools. Moreover, the relative amount of money the state allocates to each public school student it supports is likely to decline. As more states enact or expand voucher programs, the case of Wisconsin offers a cautionary tale. Statewide voucher programs have the potential to seriously exacerbate funding disparities in the public system.”

Additionally voucher programs educate the few at the expense of the millions of children who continue to be enrolled in the public schools which lose the funding. For the Phi Delta Kappan, Mark Berends explains that today, while they are expensive, voucher programs serve relatively few students: “The number of school voucher programs has increased dramatically over the last two-decades. In 2000, there were just five such programs in operation in school districts and states… by 2010, the number had increased to 12, and by 2021, it had climbed to 29… (T)he number of students participating in voucher programs… has increased significantly in the last decade, though the total number of students receiving vouchers remains a tiny fraction of the total number of students in the U.S. (about 0.5%).” (Emphasis is mine.)

And while the voucher program in Wisconsin may have reached a stable plateau, in Ohio, like many other states, legislatures are making big new investments in private school vouchers.  Writing for the Columbus Dispatch, Anna Staver and Grace Deng report: “School choice advocates say… they want Ohio and eventually the country to give a voucher to any kid who wants one. ‘People are cutting their cable and buying individual channels and personalizing what they want for their own entertainment,’ said Greg Lawson, a research fellow at the… Buckeye Institute. ‘It’s about choice. It’s about empowering folks. People want choice in their food, in their entertainment. Education should be that too.'”

Staver and Deng summarize the history of the recent rapid expansion of these programs, “(T)he rules that govern eligibility get a little more expansive every year.  At first, only students assigned to schools in ‘academic emergency’—the state’s lowest rating—for three consecutive years could apply for a voucher. A year later it became schools in either academic emergency or academic watch for three years.  Six months after that, the requirement dropped to two of the last three years. In 2013, lawmakers created an income-based scholarship for all kids regardless of their home district… Today, roughly half of Ohio’s families are eligible for an income-based voucher because the limit for a family of four (is) $65,500 of annual household income.”

In the state budget passed at the end of June, the Ohio Legislature raised the size of each voucher in another program, EdChoice, from $4,650 for students in grades K-8 to $5,500 and for students in high school from $6,000 to $7,500. Previously only 60,000 students could qualify for EdChoice statewide, but in the new budget, the Legislature eliminated any cap on the program’s size  While there used to be a 75 day window for submitting an application for an EdChoice voucher, there is now a rolling window with no closing date.  And beginning with the FY 26 school year students will no longer be required to attend a public school in the year prior to qualifying for a voucher. Today high school students need not attend a public school in the year before qualifying, but as of 2026, no student will need to have attended a public school prior to qualifying.

In Ohio, it never seems to stop. Last Wednesday members of the Ohio House held a press conference to promote House Bill 290, introduced last spring as what its sponsor is reported to have called “a legislative intent bill” for the purpose of promoting widespread discussion of universal vouchers.

The Dispatch’s Anna Staver covered last week’s press conference: “It’s called the backpack scholarship program, and it would direct the state treasurer to create ‘education savings accounts’ for any student who wanted one starting in the summer of 2023. The accounts would be filled with either $5,500 (K-8 grade) or $7,500 (9-12 grade) in state dollars annually and could be used to pay for things like private school tuition, homeschool supplies, after-school care, advanced placement testing fees or educational therapies.”

It doesn’t look as though there is any possibility this bill can quickly move through the legislature because its cost would be prohibitive. In May, two professors at Miami University of Ohio, Kathleen Knight Abowitz and Joel Malin entirely dismissed the idea that such a law is likely to be enacted—even by Ohio’s far-right legislature: “(N)either Ohio, nor any other state, can afford to adequately fund education across both public and private sectors. The cost of this model, if the intent is truly to foster high-quality education, would be prohibitively expensive.”

Ohio’s experiment with vouchers is now 25 years old.  The Cleveland Voucher program began only only five years after Milwaukee’s. While Alan Borsuk believes growth in Wisconsin’s program may have peaked, it is clear that voucher expansion still has active and enthusiastic support in Ohio. Public education advocates are worried. That is why a sizeable number of Ohio school districts soon plan to file a lawsuit (see here and here) challenging vouchers under the provisions of the Ohio Constitution.

Stalemate: Ohio’s Senate and House Reach Impasse on EdChoice Vouchers

According to what is logical, what is constitutional, and what is moral, you would think members of Ohio’s legislature could come together to resolve Ohio’s voucher crisis and provide some relief for school districts going broke because that same legislature (in the final hours of the budget conference committee last summer) surreptitiously and explosively expanded EdChoice Vouchers paid for out of local school districts’ budgets.  But you would be wrong, because in the Ohio Senate, ideology trumps logic, constitutional protection of school funding, and basic morality.

Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher program has created a crisis for Ohio school districts. Here’s why:

  • EdChoice Vouchers are awarded to students in so-called “failing” schools.  The school ratings are based on what everyone—Republican and Democratic legislators alike—agrees are flawed algorithms in the state report card.  Schools are rated in six categories, and if a school scores D or F for two years running in any one of the categories, it becomes an EdChoice Designated School, where students can qualify for a voucher paid for by a local school district budget deduction. The number of EdChoice Designated public schools increased from 255 last school year (2018-2019) to 517 this year (2019-2020), and that number is due to explode to over 1,200 schools for next school year (2020-2021). Two-thirds of all the state’s school districts will have at least one EdChoice Designated school next school year.
  • Each EdChoice voucher is based on a school district deduction—$4,650 for K-8 students and $6,000 for each high school student.  A student is counted as enrolled in the local school district, and the district receives state basic aid for that student, but for many districts, the voucher extracts more than the state’s basic aid per-pupil.  And in an added twist this school year, the state froze basic formula aid for all public schools at last year’s amount.  There is no extra money coming into the school district to pay for any additional vouchers this school year.
  • While previously a student had to have been enrolled in a public school in order to carry a voucher out of that school, in the state budget bill, the Legislature changed that requirement.  This year, any high school student living in the zone of a Designated EdChoice high school qualifies for a voucher even if that student has never attended a public school in the district.

All this means that during this 2019-2020 school year, thousands of students previously enrolled in private and religious schools claimed a voucher, while their school districts received not a cent of extra money for those students from the state.

The Legislature reached a stalemate at the end of January and gave itself 60 days, until April 1, 2020, to reach a compromise.  But the two sides—both with huge Republican majorities—are deeply divided.

The Ohio Senate supports a plan that prevents the number of Designated schools from rising to 1,200 and would, for three years, freeze the number of vouchers available while the Legislature reevaluates the state report cards on which voucher eligibility is determined.  The Senate would maintain the school district deduction method of paying for the vouchers, leaving the responsibility on the backs of local school districts, which have already begun trying to pass additional property tax levies just to begin to cover the cost of vouchers for private school tuition. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver quotes one state senator who worries that having the state take over paying for the vouchers would be so expensive that the cost alone would curtail the size of the voucher program. Senators seem less worried about the burden of the school district deduction on local budgets. While school districts have asked for hold-harmless funding to help cover the unexpected expense during the current school year, no one has offered to provide assistance.

The Ohio House passed a very different plan, which was summarily rejected on February 12 by the Ohio Senate.  The House plan would have phased out the current EdChoice Vouchers, ended the awarding of vouchers based on the state school district report card, phased out the school district deduction method of funding, and awarded all future vouchers under a new, fully state-funded, Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship program based on family income—at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.  Only students currently carrying an EdChoice Voucher (or their siblings) would continue to have their vouchers paid for by a school district deduction. The House plan, as proposed, did leave a significant burden on local school districts already losing a large amount of local school district funding to the EdChoice program.

After the Senate rejected the House plan, a Senate-House conference committee began meeting. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes “10 marathon hearings” in which “about 400 witnesses testified for a combined 49 hours of hearings that filled a Saturday morning, an entire President’s Day, and ran past 3 a.m. Wednesday night, and 2 a.m. the following night.”  Public school personnel are demanding help, but so far are seeing no progress in the legislative negotiations.

The absence of logic, constitutionality, and morality in the Ohio Senate is astounding.

Researchers from Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, to Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz, to experts at the National Education Policy Center, to Ohio’s own Howard Fleeter, to the Plain Dealer‘s Rick Exner have documented again and again and again that standardized test scores, which are at the heart of Ohio’s state report card algorithms, correlate primarily with family and neighborhood income. Ohio’s state report cards are designed to punish the school districts across Ohio’s urban areas and rural Appalachia where poverty is concentrated.  It is surely illogical for the Ohio Senate to insist on draining the local budgets of the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.

The Ohio Constitution provides that the state will provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools.  There is no constitutional provision in Ohio for the funding of private and religious schools.

Finally, we are accustomed to hearing members of the Ohio Senate blame public school teachers when their students struggle.  Ohio regularly awards “A” grades to wealthy, white outer ring suburban school districts, which lose very little from their school district budgets to EdChoice Vouchers.  Legislators lavish praise on these “excellent” schools, where children living in cocoons of privilege and wealth benefit from lavish budgets based on local property tax wealth.  One of the unmet mandates of the long and unresolved DeRolph litigation, however, is that the state is supposed to support equity by helping, rather than bankrupting, the school districts serving our state’s most vulnerable children.

Ohio House Passes Emergency Amendment Which Would Solve Some EdChoice Voucher Problems

Ohio’s House Speaker Larry Householder is leading his chamber expeditiously to address the crisis over school vouchers which emerged last weekend, when negotiations between the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House entirely broke down over the state’s EdChoice voucher program. The Ohio House passed an emergency amendment to Senate Bill 89 on Wednesday afternoon to redesign the EdChoice program. The new House amendment will be sent back to the Ohio Senate for consideration next week.

Speaker Householder has expressed growing concern about injustice, not only in the state’s EdChoice Voucher program, but also in the mass of punitive school turnaround policies Ohio has been imposing on its poorest school districts. Given decades of research correlating standardized test scores with the aggregate income of families and neighborhoods, Householder seems to recognize that state must grapple with the underlying causes—poverty and the urgent need for equitable school funding reform. He is pushing the state to support rather than punish its poorest school districts.

The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock describes Householder’s comments earlier this week at a Columbus, Ohio Associated Press event: “‘It’s become a class problem,’ Householder said. ‘And I don’t mean classroom. I mean a class problem.’  For years, low-performing schools were in Appalachia or urban areas where most of the kids were African American, Householder said. People didn’t seem to care that public schools were deemed failing and losing money when the students enrolled in private schools, he said. This year, 700 new schools—up from the current 500—are considered failing, many of them from wealthier, white areas. ‘When all of a sudden there were 1,203 schools on the list and some of them are from the wealthiest suburbs in the state of Ohio, suddenly alarms went off and now we’ve got to fix this,’ he said.  ‘That’s a class problem.'”

Householder is pushing against a state senate, however, whose members are currently being actively lobbied by Betsy DeVos, who is said to be calling in favors. When the amended Senate Bill 89 goes back for consideration in the Ohio Senate next week, agreement with the House’s new amendment is not to be taken for granted. On Wednesday afternoon, Hancock quoted State Senator Matt Huffman recommending that the Ohio Senate not concur with the House’s newest amendment.

It appears this battle will not be resolved quickly.  Householder is a Beowulf on a quest to protect our public schools from Grendel—the monster of test-and-punish, state takeover and underfunding. A long and ugly battle is to be expected.

Background

A debate over one of Ohio’s four statewide voucher plans—EdChoice Vouchers—collapsed into rancor and chaos last week with House and Senate battling back and forth and unable to move forward. Last Friday, the Legislature finally agreed to a 60 delay, during which the Legislature would grapple with problems in the program, before allowing families to sign up for EdChoice vouchers for next year.

On Monday, this blog covered last week’s ugly debacle in the Ohio Legislature over explosive growth during this school year of EdChoice, due to changes made in the program during the budget conference committee last summer. The number of public schools where students are eligible to claim EdChoice vouchers increased during this 2019-2020 school year to 517, from 255 in the 2018-2019 school year. And the budget bill established that the number of qualifying schools is now scheduled to grow to more than 1,200 public schools in the 2020-2021 school year.

Here are two of the most serious problems which need to be addressed in Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers:

First: Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers are currently “performance-based,”meaning that they are available to students who live in the attendance zone of a “Designated EdChoice Public School.” A public schools is designated for EdChoice if the state’s report card awards the school a grade of “D” or “F”—a term that denotes a “failing” school—for two years running in any one of six report card categories: Achievement, Progress, Gap Closing, Graduation Rate, Improving At-Risk K-3 Readers and Prepared for Success.  The algorithms which determine the grades are not public, and there is consensus across the state and even in the Legislature that the report card system is seriously flawed.

Second:  Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers are funded through a public school district deduction. EdChoice counts the voucher student as enrolled in the local public school and then extracts $4,650 for each elementary school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher right out of the local public school district’s budget. But a serious problem arises because in Ohio, state funding is allocated at different rates from school district to school district, and in many cases the vouchers extract more dollars per pupil from the local school budget than the state awards to that district in per pupil state aid.  Added to this: Until this year, to qualify for a voucher, an Ohio student must have been enrolled in the public school in the year previous to applying for the voucher. But surreptitiously inserted into the state budget last summer was an amendment providing that high school students may now receive a voucher even if they have never been enrolled in a public school. These provisions added together have burdened many Ohio school districts with more dollars lost to to EdChoice vouchers than the per-pupil amount they receive from the state.  Much of the money is flowing away from local school districts to students who have always been enrolled in private and religious schools and never attended a public school in the district from which the EdChoice dollars are flowing.

What Does the Emergency Amendment, Passed by the Ohio House on Wednesday, accomplish?

The House amendment passed on Wednesday ends the performance-based EdChoice vouchers and moves all students accepting a new voucher to a new program—Buckeye Opportunity Scholarships—an income based voucher program with students qualifying at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

The House amendment does not fully end the school district deduction funding for the vouchers. First time voucher applicants who qualify for the new Buckeye Opportunity Scholarships will receive income-based vouchers fully funded by the state.  Students who currently have an EdChoice voucher (and their siblings) will keep the voucher, paid for by the school district deduction until they graduate from high school. However, if the family’s income falls at or under 250 percent of the federal poverty level, these students will be transferred (beginning in the 2021-2022 school year) to the new program paid for at full state expense.  On Wednesday afternoon, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock explained: “The House plan also will try to get as many kids off of performance-based vouchers as possible by checking family incomes to see if they qualify for income-based vouchers and moving them over to that system… (This) will make a difference for local school districts. Performance-based vouchers are paid for by local school districts in the form of a deduction….”  The House’s failure fully to eliminate the school district deduction, which school districts fear will continue to drain millions of dollars annually out of their local budgets for vouchers, remains a cause for alarm.

The amendment the House sent back to the Senate on Wednesday night would also establish a formal Educational Assssment Study Committee to review serious problems with the uses of statewide standardized testing and with the state school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts based primarily on the standardized tests. The committee would be expected to report out by October 1, 2020.

Important Reforms Omitted from the Proposed House Amendment

Public school officials and public school advocates had hoped the House would address several additional problems with the current EdChoice program—issues that the House chose not to address in its proposed EdChoice overhaul:

First:  The House amendment ignores the need for hold-harmless funding for school districts with unexpected and sudden costs during the current 2019-2020 school year from last summer’s expansion of EdChoice. School districts hit hard during this school year by the last summer’s expansion of the EdChoice program had hoped for passage of $30 million (to be distributed across affected school districts) to cushion the unexpected collapse of their local school district budgets during the current school year. Such hold-harmless funding was discussed by legislators in both chambers last week. And the Cleveland Municipal School District had expected similar relief for explosive voucher growth this year through the school district deduction.  The House amendment does not provide this hold-harmless funding.  (A more modest $10 million to help some school districts damaged in the current school year was passed last week in a separate bill.)

Second:  The House amendment does not require that to qualify for a voucher, students must have been previously enrolled in a public school before they are granted tax dollars to escape that public school—the very purpose for which the Legislature said it created the program. Today, the vouchers are being awarded to students who have always attended private and religious schools.

House Passes A Second Very Positive Amendment to Senate Bill 89

On Wednesday, the Ohio House passed another very welcome emergency amendment to Senate Bill 89: to end Ohio’s state school district takeovers established without adequate public hearings in the summer of 2015. The House amendment would end the state takeovers and the top-down, appointed Academic Distress Commissions in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland. Elected representatives from Lorain and Youngstown spoke passionately for the need to restore local control and community engagement in their school districts, which were thrust into chaos in recent years by their Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed CEOs.

EdChoice Voucher Negotiations Break Down in Ohio: Four Questions Must Be Addressed in 60-Day Delay

Rancor and confusion over the issue of EdChoice private school tuition vouchers filled the chambers of the Ohio Legislature all last week. In anticipation of the February 1st date when families were supposed to start signing up for vouchers for next school year, the Legislature set out to address problems with Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program, problems created when changes were surreptitiously inserted into the state budget last summer during last minute hearings by the conference committee.

Last week’s negotiations about the voucher program broke down entirely on Thursday night and Friday, however.  The Legislature has now delayed the EdChoice voucher sign-up process; it has given itself two months to address big problems in the program. Here is how the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes the chaos in Ohio:

“Ohio’s controversy over tuition vouchers sparked anger, political posturing and suspense in Columbus this week, with no clarity for anyone. That won’t come for two months.  Parents won’t know until April if their children are eligible to receive a tax-funded voucher toward private school tuition.  Vouchers applications that were supposed to start Saturday won’t. Private schools won’t know if they will receive any state tuition help. And about 1,200 public schools across Ohio don’t know if they will remain on a state list of underperforming schools which lets students use vouchers that are then billed to the district. Even state legislators can’t say what form Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program will take for the fall. After the Ohio House and Senate proposed drastic changes this week to rework which students would be eligible for vouchers and who would pay for them, negotiations fizzled. By Friday, with Saturday’s start of the voucher application looming, both houses voted to delay any applications until April 1, while they search for a compromise.”

One interesting detail about the huge fight in Columbus about school choice right now is that it is taking place among Ohio Republicans. The Ohio Senate has a Republican supermajority; the Ohio House recently dropped from a supermajority to a 61.6 percent Republican majority. Democrats are surely deeply involved, however. Ohio Democrats reliably support the institution of public education in this fight: They insist that public tax dollars ought to be spent on Ohio’s public schools, which everybody agrees remain underfunded.

Today’s debate, however, is about more than whether we ought to have vouchers. After all today in Ohio, we do have vouchers—five kinds of vouchers. There is the original 1996 Cleveland Scholarship program. Additionally there are now four statewide Ohio voucher programs:  Peterson Special Education vouchers, Autism vouchers, EdChoice vouchers, and a newer program, EdChoice Expansion vouchers.

As I listened to the January 31, 2020 Friday afternoon hearing in the Ohio Senate, what I heard were all sorts of arguments about a number of important policy questions. The debate was confusing, just as the whole week’s policy debate in and outside the legislature has been complicated and confounding. Legislators and advocates across Ohio are arguing about four different questions, but the debate has grown increasingly chaotic as people conflate the questions, their answers to the questions, and the intersection of the issues involved.  Here are the four questions:

  • Should Ohio pay for private school tuition vouchers out of the state’s education budget when the state should be spending the money to support what everyone agrees are underfunded public schools?
  • As far as the operation of the EdChoice voucher program goes, should qualification for the vouchers be based on the grades Ohio has been assigning to schools on the state report cards or should it be based on family income alone?
  • As far as the operation of the EdChoice voucher program goes, should the state fully fund the vouchers or should the state be deducting the price of the vouchers from local school district budgets?
  • As far as the operation of the EdChoice voucher program goes, what should the state do to hold harmless the school districts which lost millions of dollars during the current school year when an unexpected and explosive number of students already in private schools claimed vouchers which legislators had surreptitiously—in a brand new state budget—permitted them to claim through a local school district deduction?

This blog has not been neutral about the EdChoice vouchers. This blog has extensively covered problems with this program: here, here, herehere, and here.  I am a committed advocate for Ohio’s public schools, and my own opinions will certainly shape how I answer each of the four questions. I will, however, sort out the issues one question at a time, because I think advocates as well as legislators need to consider carefully their answers to the four questions one at a time.

Should Ohio pay for private school tuition vouchers out of the state’s education budget when the state should instead be spending the money to support what everyone agrees are underfunded public schools? This blog has consistently opposed school privatization and the diversion of tax dollars out of public schools into vouchers and charter schools.  Further Ohio’s state constitution provides for the common good by establishing a comprehensive, democratically governed system of public education—publicly funded, universally accessible, and accountable to the public.  Justice in education—the distribution of opportunity for all children and not just for some—can best be achieved systemically.  The public schools are the optimal institutions for balancing the needs of each particular child and family and at the same time securing the rights and addressing the needs of all children. In her presentation to the Ohio Senate last Friday, Senator Teresa Fedor enumerated all the reasons why Ohio ought to support its public schools and not divert tax dollars through tuition vouchers to private and religious schools. I encourage you to watch her presentation at about 45 minutes into the video.

But whether or not Ohio ought to have five massive school voucher programs is not the issue this week for Ohio and its legislature.

The Three Questions Regarding the Operation of the EdChoice Program

The current challenge for the Legislature is repairing the damage for public schools caused by Legislature’s surreptitious expansion last summer of the EdChoice voucher program in amendments added during the Ohio Budget Conference Committee. These changes did not become known until August, just as the school year was beginning when the Ohio Association of School Business Officials warned school treasurers that districts had begun experiencing budget deductions due to the expansion of the program a month earlier. The fine print of the biennial budget established that the number of public schools where students are eligible to claim EdChoice vouchers increased during this 2019-2020 school year to 517 from 255 in the 2018-2019 school year. And the budget bill established that the number of qualifying schools is now scheduled to grow to more than 1,200 public schools in the 2020-2021 school year.

Should qualification for the vouchers be based on the grades Ohio has been assigning to schools on the state report cards or should it be based on family income alone?   It has become a cliche in Ohio that vouchers provide escapes from “failing” schools for the children trapped in those schools.  I continue to wonder whether the legislators and state officials devising the state’s letter grades for public schools ever visit and observe the schools being graded. Public schools across Ohio’s 610 school districts work with children bringing a range of challenges. Nationally, the failure of the No Child Left Behind Act to close test score gaps ought to have taught us all that punishments and threats don’t enable educators to close test score gaps. The academic research is long and very clear. The test scores on which the Ohio’s report card system mostly depends correlate highly with aggregate family and neighborhood income. (See here, here, and here.) That is why the exurban, high-income school districts uniformly earn the Legislature’s plaudits and the state’s high grades.  A punitive system like Ohio’s, which threatens low scoring schools with low report card grades, more vouchers, and more charter schools, only reduces resources for the schools with the greatest challenges.

Legislators say they agree that the state’s school report cards—on which the EdChoice system identifies the schools where children can qualify vouchers—are deeply flawed and must be reconsidered.  The Ohio Department of Education awards letter grades for public schools in six categories: Achievement, Progress, Gap Closing, Graduation Rate, Improving At-Risk K-3 Readers, and Prepared for Success.  The grades are calculated with algorithms unknown to the public. If a school is rated D or F for two years running in any one of the categories it becomes a “School Choice Designated School.”  And because of a hold-harmless period between 2014 and 2017, the years for which schools are held accountable by EdChoice in the current (2019-2020) school  year and the next (2020-2021) school year are 2013-2014, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019.

In a statement on Thursday night, House Speaker Larry Householder rejected conditioning vouchers on the school district report cards. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explains: “Householder… criticized state report cards whose grades are used to label schools as underperforming, saying state grades should be constructive, not a ‘gun to the head’ of schools. He singled out the K-3 Literacy grade, which measures how well schools help struggling young readers, as a grade that needs to be eliminated. ‘K-3, that’s the most ridiculous thing in the world.  Why was it put there? It’s simple. It created more opportunities for private schools to take public school kids out of the system… A lot of these performance standards have been put in place because these people in competition with public schools have lobbied for more and more difficult standards. Instead of trying to outdo your competition by being better, they’re trying to outdo the competition by making them worse.'”

Should the state fully fund the vouchers or should the state continue deducting the price of EdChoice vouchers from local school district budgets?  EdChoice, one of the Ohio’s four statewide voucher programs, takes the money through the deduction method, counting the voucher student as enrolled in the local school and then extracting $4,650 for each elementary school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher right out of the public school district’s budget. But a serious problem arises because in Ohio, state funding is allocated at different rates from school district to school district, and in many cases the vouchers extract more dollars per pupil from the local school budget than the state awards to that district in per pupil state aid. Added to this: Until this year, to qualify for a voucher, an Ohio student must have been enrolled in the public school in the year previous to applying for the voucher. But, secreted into the state budget last summer was an amendment providing that high school students may now receive a voucher even if they have never been enrolled in a public school. All of these provisions added together mean that many Ohio school districts are now losing more dollars to EdChoice vouchers than the per-pupil amount they receive from the state of Ohio, and much of this money is flowing away from school districts to students who have always been enrolled in private and religious schools and never attended a public school in the district from which the EdChoice dollars are flowing.

The Legislature’s explosive expansion of the number of qualifying schools in the EdChoice program has combined with the school district deduction funding of the program to create an existential crisis for a number of the state’s local school districts which are suddenly watching millions of dollars drain out of their budgets. The Legislature has saddled school districts with a school privatization program whose size the Legislature has no incentive to control.  Money quietly washes out of local school district budgets, but the state has no record of the amount and leaves the school district with no control over what is happening to their local budgets. If the state were to take over full funding of the EdChoice program, the Legislature would at least be forced in a democratically transparent budget allocation to assume control over the cost by limiting the number of the vouchers and setting the amount it would be prepared to allocate.

The Statehouse News Bureau‘s Karen Kasler quotes House Speaker Larry Householder endorsing the idea of replacing the school district deduction with direct state funding as a fairer way to fund the EdChoice program: “These Opportunity Scholarships would be funded directly and entirely by the state, instead of being deducted from state aid paid to local districts…. This approach has a lot less impact on local school districts and puts the focus where it belongs: For a more equal opportunity for all of Ohio’s 1.8 million school kids, regardless of their ZIP Code.”

What should the state do to hold harmless the school districts which were harmed financially during the current school year when an explosive number of students already in private schools claimed vouchers paid for by the local school district deduction?  In my school district in Cleveland Heights-University Heights, the district recently distributed a brochure explaining that EdChoice vouchers cost the district $4.2 million for us last fiscal year and an estimated loss of $6.8 million this fiscal year.  Each time a student secures an EdChoice Voucher, that student can keep the voucher, paid for by the school district deduction, every year until the student graduates from high school.  The school district’s information handout continues: “The CH-UH City School District will ask the community for a new 7.9 mill operating levy in March. The current funding issues with EdChoice are the major reason for this millage. In fact, the District would not need to ask for a levy until 2023 if it weren’t for the way EdChoice was funded, and the millage would be significantly less.”

The Legislature has been meeting this week about the future of the program, but many school districts like mine across the state are demanding to be held harmless for losses already incurred from the sudden changes imposed in the state budget last summer. In the video of Friday’s Ohio Senate hearing, 38 minutes into the hearing, a you can watch State Senator Sandra Williams discuss this problem.

In the original Senate plan to amend the EdChoice Program, passed last Tuesday, $30 million was promised to help the school districts which experienced sudden explosive increases in voucher use during the current 2019-2020 school year. The Senate had also allocated $7 million to repair losses to funding for the Cleveland schools in the recently passed state budget. After the Senate’s original plan was sent on to the House and the House plan sent its amendments back to the Senate late Thursday, the hold harmless funding was omitted. Advocates must demand that the House leadership adheres to its promise eventually to restore hold harmless funding into the eventual redesign of the EdChoice program. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported: “The House measure does not include about $7 million toward the Cleveland Scholarship, a Cleveland-only voucher program, or $30 million for school districts with large voucher increases this ongoing school year… Householder said he would support that money being included in a final compromise.”

What Should the Legislature Do about EdChoice Vouchers?

Should Ohio be spending money on vouchers when everyone agrees our state’s public schools are underfunded? Of course not. Our state ought to be funding a thorough and efficient system of public education as the state constitution prescribes. Funding for public education is particularly important in this year when a new funding plan is being considered and when state dollars for public school per-pupil basic aid have been frozen.

But it is a reality that Ohio will continue to have vouchers after 60 days of legislative negotiations on the operation of the EdChoice program. Given that reality, our legislature must stop the bleeding caused by the injury of explosive growth in the EdChoice voucher program in the state budget last summer.

  • The Legislature needs to adopt House Speaker Larry Householder’s plan to decouple EdChoice vouchers from the flawed school report cards that the legislators say they will extensively revise at some point due to longstanding problems.
  • The Legislature should fully fund the EdChoice program out of the state budget to take responsibility for and establish transparency about the expense of this program. The Legislature must ensure that the budgetary burden of EdChoice vouchers is not thrust onto local  school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty, the very school districts which already need smaller classes, more social workers, school librarians, art and music programs, and advanced curricular offerings.
  • And certainly the Legislature must respond to Senator Sandra Williams’ plea to return the money stolen by the EdChoice voucher program out of this year’s local school district budgets without warning.

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)