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Ohio Voucher Expansion Plan Intensifies Choice Debate

Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 5:00 PM

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Ohioans fighting to bring choices to parents who feel trapped by the public education system can expect a big victory if Governor John Kasich’s state budget is approved. Under his proposal, the number of families that can get a state funded voucher to spend on private school tuition will nearly quadruple. While the expansion excites some politicians and school choice advocates, others question whether the state has enough proof of the benefits of vouchers to justify this policy decision. Ideastream’s Michelle Kanu has the story.

Erica Brown always dreamed of sending her children to private school, but couldn’t afford to foot the bill.  Brown grew frustrated when she realized her daughter Hope was coasting through the second grade material at her neighborhood Akron public school.

Brown: “I just felt like she could have been pushed harder because she was flying through everything and that she was really bored.”

That’s why Brown’s ears perked up two years ago as she was standing in line on a routine shopping trip to her local discount club store.

Brown: “I overheard someone talking about a free voucher program for kids to go to a private school, and they were saying you had to live in a certain district.  I’m like overhearing the conversation, so I asked the girl, ‘well, what’s the name of that scholarship?’ And she couldn’t remember.  So I’m like, ok, I’ll just go home and look it up on the internet.”

What she found was the Educational Choice Scholarship Program—also known as EdChoice — a state program that offers families whose kids attend underperforming schools vouchers of up to $5,000 to pay for private school tuition.  The money for those vouchers comes from the state funding that school districts get based on their student enrollment.  Brown applied, and today Hope attends Chapel Hill Christian School in Summit County.  Her mother couldn’t be happier. 

Brown:  “She’s definitely not bored and she has a lot on her plate.  I think they’re definitely on a higher grade level.  They have higher expectations and their grading scale is a lot harder.”

Since EdChoice started in 2006, demand for vouchers has quadrupled and exceeded supply.  If Governor Kasich’s state budget is approved, the number of available vouchers will jump - from 14,000 currently to 60,000 by 2013. 

While that increase is good news for parents like Brown, and school choice proponents who have been clamoring to expand vouchers for years, critics worry it opens the floodgates to funneling state dollars away from public schools and into private ones. 

Piet van Lier is a researcher with the left leaning group Policy Matters Ohio. 

Van Lier: “Public schools in Ohio are losing $2 billion over the biennium if you include state funding as well as federal money that’s going away. And then you’re going to start taking hundreds of millions more—it just doesn’t make sense as public policy.”

Van Lier says there just isn’t enough evidence that the program is improving students’ academic performance, or to justify using public tax dollars to expand it to more families.  All EdChoice students are required to take the same state tests as public school kids, and Van Lier says results from the past two years show the voucher kids aren’t doing any better than their peers.

Van Lier: “Overall the public school students tend to do better than the voucher recipients.”

But to many supporters of vouchers, that’s almost beside the point.  What’s important, they say, is that vouchers enable parents to make choices about their child’s education.

State Representative Matt Huffman says Ohio needs to rethink the idea of only giving the vouchers to kids who attend underperforming schools. He proposes revamping the program entirely to expand it to any family that makes up to four times the federal poverty level, or $100,000 a year.  If his bill passes, nearly 80% of Ohio families would be eligible, regardless of the quality of their neighborhood public schools.

Huffman: “My point is, let’s step back away from what the different public schools want and what the different charter schools want and the different private schools want and just simply give alternatives to parents and children who are trying to make good decisions.”

Discount shopper Erica Brown agrees.  She says parents choose vouchers for private schools for more than just academics.  The types of sports offered, the social-or religious-values they teach, and the way they prepare kids for the future also matter.

Brown: “I know that more kids in high school that graduate from a private school end up attending a college. So, just off of that, and a lot of kids do drop out of public schools-I was hoping that my child could be one of the ones that could definitely graduate and go on to college.”

Research in other cities does show voucher students achieve higher graduation rates than those in public schools.  And while critics in Ohio are calling for more evaluation of EdChoice before expanding it, Governor Kasich’s education advisor, Robert Sommers, says there are no such plans in the works. 

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