The Ohio voucher boondoggle

With the passage of the state budget, expansion of Ohio's voucher program is set to explode, sucking dollars from schools that desperately need every penny they have, causing a viscous circle of funding and performance problems.

Ramping from 14,000 vouchers to 30,000 in the coming school year and then skyward to 60,000 the year after, provides the potential to drain up to $300,000,000 (up from over $71.6 million in 2010) from public schools in the state, with much of this money flowing to private schools.

The eligibility was also expanded to encompass schools in the lowest 10 percent of all public school buildings by performance index score for two of the last three school years. The change adds 31 more schools to the list of 197 which current qualify.

As a recent article in the Nation points out, this expansion has less to do with so-called "choice" and more to do with the ideological attack on public education, an attack that features the usual host of antagonists

But lately, the push from the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations for “accountability,” charters and school choice—and in the case of Walton, for vouchers specifically—has morphed into the broader attack on the public school establishment. On the far right, deep-pockets conservatives like members of the Walton (Walmart) family, Patrick Byrne of and Amway heirs Dick and Betsy DeVos and their American Federation for Children (a name obviously designed as a jab at the AFT) are pouring millions into unionbashing politicians and Astroturf voucher PACs. (Betsy DeVos also happens to be the sister of Blackwater’s Erik Prince, who’s probably done more than anyone to privatize the military.)

Unlike liberals like Coons, the Friedmanites seem to have concerns that are less about children and good education than about privatization, small government and the blessings of the free market. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s pursuit of charters, test-based teacher accountability and programs to shut down “failing” schools plays powerfully to the distrust in the system.

But these aren't the only problems. As testimony by think tank Policy Matters Ohio pointed out, we lack any knowledge of how well students who attend many of these tax payer funded private schools are being educated

In 2010, nearly 5,000 students had enrolled in Cleveland’s Catholic schools using the voucher and 23 of the Diocese’s 29 schools had more than 50 percent voucher enrollment; 16 of them had voucher enrollment of at least 75 percent. These high levels of dependence by religious schools on taxpayer funding are striking and troubling. This dependence also raises the question – at what level of public funding should a private school be held to accountability standards and tools, such as report cards, restructuring, and even closure, to which district and charter schools are increasingly being required to submit?

For this and other reasons, it is important to examine more closely academic performance at Ohio schools that accept vouchers, and the state’s voucher programs have no conclusive performance data to support them. Last year’s state tests showed mixed results for the EdChoice program – according to data from the Ohio Department of Education, for example, voucher students scored better than district counterparts in Columbus, but not as well in Cincinnati and Toledo. In the Cleveland voucher program, district students outperformed voucher students on most state tests last year. The only thorough review of an Ohio voucher program, the six-year study of the Cleveland program mandated by the state and conducted by Indiana University, found no significant advantage for voucher students.

There is a huge push to instill unprecedented "accountability" upon public schools and their teachers, yet private schools that receive massive amounts of tax payer support continue to go unchecked. Why would policy makers seek to create such a two track system if the intent was not to undermine public education in a quest to privatize as much as possible?

It's time that policy makers created a system that was fair and equal for everyone, so parents and tax payers had a full body of knowledge with which to make their choices.