Of all the groups with gripes over the Governor's proposed budget, no one is talking louder or more angrily than advocates for school vouchers. And they are all about helping the poor. Here's a sample of typical rhetoric:
- Today Gov. Strickland slammed the door of opportunity in the faces of 14,000 of Ohio's poorest schoolchildren by calling for the elimination of the EdChoice program. He is forcing these children to leave the schools they love and sentencing them to return to the staggeringly low-performing schools they fled."
-- Lori Drummer, Alliance for School Choice state projects director
Let's define terms for a moment. EdChoice, is a voucher program that provides $4250 to elementary students or $5000 to high school students to attend private schools that are enrolled in the program. To be eligible, a student must either currently attend or be assigned to a school building in Academic Watch or Academic Emergency, or live in the district of an underperforming building and currently attend a charter school.
A participating school cannnot charge tuition greater than the voucher amount to any family with an income less than 200% of the poverty line. For families over 200% of poverty, they can choose to either pay additional tuition or do volunteer work for the school to pay off the balance. A student must be accepted by a private school prior to applying for an EdChoice scholarship.
EdChoice is not the same as the Cleveland voucher program. It is also not the same as the charter school or as we call it in Ohio, "Community Schools" program. I thought people knew all that, but I keep seeing the three conflated.
Vouchers and the Middle Class
There's a fair amount of evidence that the voucher program is serving middle class families rather than the truly poor. A Policy Matters Ohio study on the characteristics of students in the Cleveland program (with limited data available) found considerable evidence that the kids were coming from families that could afford private school without the vouchers. And an Indiana University study on the effects of the program on achievement had to adjust the results for class and race because "the voucher group had a greater proportion of White and affluent children."
With regard to the EdChoice program, anecdotal evidence appears to show that families were finding ways to game the system to get into school vouchers despite the fact that they were otherwise able to get out of their home districts. A recent Toledo Blade story provides the latest example.
It's not hard to look at the structure of the program and imagine why. Certainly the scholarship amounts are a bit low for private school tuition, particularly for non-religious (and therefore unsubsidized) private schools. In addition, there is a fair amount of room for mischief that would bias the program in favor of more affluent families -- offering only unpleasant volunteer work, playing games with "acceptance," etc. The incentives are there -- more affluent students will be more attractive to private schools. The only way to be sure that no games are being played is to rigorously oversee the program and the experience with charter schools doesn't give us much hope of that.
To be sure, one can make arguments, based either on utility or some notion of "fairness" for providing vouchers to middle class families. For example, Buckeye Institute gamely tries to offer vouchers as a means to urban renewal. But if that's what we are doing, that's what the conversation should be about. The conversation shouldn't be dominated by arguments for helping poor kids out of bad schools without evidence that is happening.
And even if subsidizing middle class kids attending private schools is a good idea, we cannot afford all good ideas. Strickland's education budget is a real attempt to steer state money where it will do the most good. He was right to judge that the EdChoice program doesn't fit that bill.