Lower state report card grades open door for massive expansion of vouchers, charter schools
Parma High School is one of the new schools where students can now use tax-funded EdChoice vouchers to go to private school, after receiving low grades on state report cards. The entire Parma school district is also open to charter schools starting, also as a result of low state report card grades.
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Tougher state tests and lower grades for schools and districts across Ohio have opened the doors for a potentially massive expansion of vouchers and charter schools.
How much will occur and how fast is still unclear, but eligible areas for vouchers will double and areas where charter schools are allowed to start will rise more than 600 percent for next fall.
That’s sure to start debates in Columbus, where a move to expand vouchers in 2017 earned some support before failing. There’s also a long-running controversy over whether charter schools and vouchers lead to better learning for students. Data and research on both counts has been mixed.
Ohio has long made school choice options like charter schools and vouchers – tax funded tuition aid for private schools – dependent on how well a student’s home school district scores on state tests. When the local public school scores poorly, Ohio law allows charter schools to start in the area and gives vouchers to kids to attend private, mostly religious, schools.
Now, Ohio’s attempts to hold students and schools to tougher academic standards is making tax-funded school choice much more available. Though tougher Common Core-based standards kicked in in 2015, knocking down test scores across Ohio, the state had delayed giving lower grades or allowing lower scores to have much impact until after the most recent state report cards in September.
Now that the “safe harbor” period has passed, the voucher and charter landscape has changed significantly. Here’s how:
– Over the last few years, students in 218 schools in Ohio (along with all Cleveland students who are eligible for a separate voucher program) could receive up to $5,000 a year in tuition aid to private schools because their regular public school was considered ineffective.
Next school year, that list of ineffective schools balloons to more than 475.
Those include the high schools for Bedford, Cleveland Heights, Euclid, Maple Heights, and Parma, for example, whose students can now apply for tax-funded vouchers to go to private, usually Catholic, schools.
– The growth of charter-eligible districts grew even more, from 38 statewide to 217 for next school year. Once restricted to only urban and the most-struggling districts in Ohio, charter schools can now open in more than a third of the districts in the state.
Cleveland, Akron, Lorain, Painesville and many inner-ring Cleveland suburbs were already included in charter-eligible areas. But new potential charter homes now include Parma, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, South Euclid-Lyndhurst in Cuyahoga County, Kenston in Geauga County, Wickliffe and Fairport Harbor in Lake County, Cloverleaf in Medina County, Streetsboro in Portage County and Barberton in Summit County.
Parma had previously been on the charter-eligible list, allowing schools to start there, but had been removed a few years ago, before returning to it now.
Though some voucher programs are funded by the state, these increases in both vouchers and charter school eligibility will affect school district budgets. Local districts pay the voucher amount or state-mandated charter funding when students choose other schools.
The Ohio School Boards Association, which opposes vouchers already, objects to adding them to more areas.
“Voucher programs lack the academic accountability of public schools,” said Jay Smith, who works with the state legislature for the association. “Further, voucher programs drain scarce resources that could be best utilized by Ohio’s public schools where the vast majority of Ohio’s students are educated.”
Smith also repeated the association’s long-running complaints that districts have to pay charter schools for each student, even when that amount exceeds the state aid a district receives.
Talisa Dixon, the superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district and soon-to-be superintendent of Columbus schools, was not pleased her high school was added to the list. But she noted that other schools in her district already had students eligible for vouchers worth $4 million out of district funds.
“The EdChoice program already has a huge impact on our district currently, so I don’t know how much this new designation can add to that,” she said. “Those are public taxpayer dollars that are now going to fund private, parochial, and religious institutions. This model of school funding is not sustainable for inner ring districts such as ours.”
She offered no comment on charter schools in her district.
How much expansion will occur in either area is still to be determined.
New State Sen. Andrew Brenner, who chaired the House Education Committee last year – a seat still unfilled for this year, said he has always wanted charters to be able to open wherever parents or schools saw a need and there was enough demand from families to support them.
“The charters will go where they economically work (even with new open areas),” Brenner said. “My guess is they will still be in the urban areas because of density and other things.”
Peggy Young, the past chair of the organization representing charter oversight agencies in the state, said new schools starting in the fall would likely be limited, since people have had little time to plan since new areas were opened up. She said there is interest in creating schools in some of the new areas, but her oversight agency, the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, is telling people to build community support for 2020.
Richard Lukich, who heads the Constellation charter school chain here in Northeast Ohio, said he has no plans to start a new school anytime soon because state controls have made it increasingly difficult to do so.
Superintendents of the Cloverleaf, Kenston, Streetsboro and Wickliffe districts all said they are not aware of schools looking to start in their area and do not expect many, if any.
Larry Keough of the Ohio Catholic Conference also did not expect any large or immediate jump in voucher use, though he would know more after applications for the vouchers opens Feb. 1. He has not had a chance to study details yet, but noted that voucher growth has traditionally been slow and that openings at schools would have to line up with parent interest.
“Schools may have some vacancies, but its finite and its limited,” he said. “The numbers don’t always play out like people expect them to.”
Eligibility rules can also be strict. Students must be new to Ohio or actively attending a public school this year to be eligible next year, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
In addition, the recent expansion of vouchers to allow children on low-income families – not just students at struggling schools – to use them has already absorbed many of the families that might use them now that their district schools are part of the program.
The Cleveland Catholic Diocese is also unsure of the impact. Many of its schools are in Cleveland, which is covered by a separate voucher grogram that includes all students in the Cleveland district. Many other students are using income-based vouchers, said Pamela Ouzts, director of government programs for diocesan schools.
“We’re not making a concerted effort here to knock on any doors in the area,” Ouzts said. But it could help schools suffering from constant declines in enrollment over time.
“In the long run, it will help keep them thriving,” she said.
Click here for detailed information from the state on the voucher program.
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