Terry Ryan: With choice comes accountability, 10/17/11

posted Dec 13, 2011, 1:19 PM by Bill Duncan
Terry Ryan: With choice comes accountability

By Terry Ryan 
Published: October 17, 2011 - 07:04 PM

DAYTON: There is talk around the Statehouse of a coming war in Ohio around school choice. The potential trigger is House Bill 136. It would create the Parental Choice and Taxpayer Saving Scholarship (PACT) Program.

PACT would award private school scholarships (or vouchers) worth up to $4,563 a piece to children from families with annual household incomes of up to about $62,000 for a family of four. Based on 2010 U.S. Census numbers, slightly more than half of all households in the state could be eligible for the full voucher amount and another 25 percent could be eligible for smaller vouchers awarded on a sliding family income scale up to $95,000.

Ohio already has three statewide publicly funded voucher programs, so this would be the fourth, and in time it would likely dwarf the other three in numbers of recipients and budgetary impact.

PACT is controversial because its scale means it could affect every district in the state. It would transfer public dollars from districts to private schools (many religious), and it is being proposed in times of diminishing resources and shrinking enrollments in many places. Districts are hurting and this feels like piling on to some. These tensions are not new. The Buckeye State has been at the epicenter of school choice since the late 1990s.

More than 75,000 students are now enrolled in some 350 charter schools. The EdChoice Scholarship Program provides vouchers to students in failing schools, and it is set to expand from 14,000 to 30,000 students next year. The Autism Scholarship Program now serves more than 1,300 youngsters. Over 7,200 students participate in the Cleveland scholarship program, Ohio’s oldest. In June, Ohio added a special needs voucher program that will provide public support of up to $20,000 to eligible students to attend private schools.

Ohio’s school districts also have a number of choice programs: magnet schools and alternative programs, STEM high schools and early college academies. And some 429 districts allow students from anywhere in the state to attend their schools via open enrollment. (Another 90 allow students from adjacent districts to enroll.) And, thousands of families have moved to different houses or apartments in pursuit of better educational options for their daughters and sons.

Besides these bricks-and-mortar options, Ohio has 27 virtual schools serving 33,000 students. The digital learning sector is set to expand rapidly in coming years, and this growth will likely lead to new forms of hybrids that blend classroom-based and on-line learning, as 24/7 outside-of-school learning opportunities for students. Nationally, more than half of all children now attend some kind of “school of choice” and Ohio’s number is surely higher.

The genie of school choice is out of the bottle and we are likely to see more of it. The question for state policy-makers is how to ensure that this widening of options is matched by improved school quality and ultimate gains in student achievement. It little avails a child to choose a school that’s no more effective than the one he or she is exiting. At the end of the day, improved achievement has to be the state’s foremost education policy goal.

Regrettably Ohio’s current school-choice options have had mixed results. Some argue this is reason enough to stop adding choices, but parents and students want more options. The challenge is to ensure that the quality of the choices keeps pace with their quantity and availability.

As new choice programs emerge, they must be incorporated into a rigorous accountability system, preferably one that allows their results to be directly compared with the schools that kids are leaving. Indiana’s expanded voucher program, for example, incorporates a common rating system with five performance tiers for every school that receives state dollars (including private schools enrolling voucher students). All private schools receiving vouchers are graded annually and those that fail to perform adequately for two consecutive years may not enroll new students using state dollars until their performance improves.

Accountability is the partner of choice. The latter creates space for innovation and new options while the former drives change and pushes for continuous improvement. Accountability exposes poor performers and charlatans, while also highlighting successful schools.

The challenge facing policymakers is that, while many voices clamor for widened choice and the opportunities that go with it, far fewer demand accountability for performance. Getting the balance right will determine whether or not school choice in Ohio ultimately succeeds or fails to improve student outcomes. It should also serve as the basis for political détente around school choice.

Ryan is the vice president for Ohio Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Dayton.