Friday, September 02, 2016

Ohio school choice programs good, but could be better

Ohio ranks well when it comes to providing students with educational choices, but there is still room for improvement, a new report says.

The American Federation for Children (AFC) and the American Federation for Children Growth Fund recently reviewed 50 private school choice programs and ranked them according to their ideal program in terms of student eligibility, scholarship amount and program size, and transparency and accountability.

Ohio's Income-Based Scholarship Program, also known as the EdChoice Expansion, ranked 7th overall. The EdChoice Scholarship ranked 16th and the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program came in at 22nd.

In the Voucher category, the Income-Based Scholarship was 3rd, the EdChoice Scholarship was 9th and the Cleveland program was 10th.

Ohio's three programs in the rankings are all voucher programs. The other categories in the rankings are those that allow students to select a private, including religious, schools through tax credits or Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

Vouchers were graded according to:

  • how many students were eligible to participate in the program,
  • the average scholarship amount as a percent of the state's public school per pupil spending, 
  • accountability in terms of testing, annual financial reporting, proof of financial viability.

Despite the good rankings, all Ohio programs lost points in the grading system because participating schools are not required to provide annual financial reports or proof of financial viability. They also lost points due to limits on participation.

The Cleveland Scholarship Program is only available to students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. The EdChoice Scholarship Program is only available to students who would otherwise attend a low-performing school. The Income-Based Scholarship Program is only available to students just above the income limit to qualify for free or reduced lunches.

While Ohio's scholarships are good, AFC has recommendations for policymakers wanting to improve the programs.

It recommends increasing the cap on scholarship amounts in the Cleveland program. The average scholarship amount is $4,437 - only 43% of the state's public per pupil spending average.

"These caps should be raised so students have additional quality choices and scholarships cover more of high school private school tuition costs," the report says. "Funding should be available for robust scholarships for all eligible students who want one."

Whitney Marcavage, the report's author, says that ideally, scholarship amounts should equal the total amount of the state and local share in the state's average public per pupil spending.

"But most states don't do that," she explained. "It's not just Ohio."

She also said that in some areas, the quality of private school choices is an issue.

"Additional funding would increase the options for parents," she said. "Additional funding also spurs the demand for new schools to open or for existing schools to expand to accommodate more scholarship students."

Marcavage also said that states should look at the total amount of tuition needed for grades 9-12 and provide scholarship amounts that match 100% of the tuition.

"Most scholarships do a good job of covering elementary school tuition, but fall short when it comes to high school," she said. "Children should be able to continue their private education and not have to leave a school of choice because the scholarship isn't enough to cover the costs."

AFC also recommends eliminating the low-performing school requirement from the EdChoice program.

"Failing school programs are hard to implement and they limit choice for students whose schools may be failing them but are not officially designated as failing by the state," the report notes.

Complicating this criteria is the fact that Ohio recently changed its school grading system making it more difficult to identify which schools qualify as "low-performing" over time.

As with the Cleveland scholarships, AFC recommends increasing the EdChoice scholarship amounts which average $4,139 or 41% of the state's public school per pupil spending.

The Income-Based Scholarship Program was enacted in 2013 and had 5,594 participants in the 2015-16 school year. AFC recommends increasing the income limits so more children are eligible, but advises that low-income families should be prioritized if the limits are raised.

It suggests that partial scholarships should be eliminated and that students be allowed to stay in the program once enrolled, regardless of changes in the family income.

Since this is a new program and only covers grades K-2, the average scholarship amount is $3,567 which is 35% of the state's public per pupil spending. The average should increase as new grade levels are added each year, but scholarships are capped at $4,650 which AFC says should be raised.

When it comes to accountability, AFC says private school choice programs should be transparent and accountable to both parents and taxpayers. But what form the financial accountability should take, considering the private nature of the schools, is not identified.

Marcavage said that very few states include financial reporting as a requirement.

For example, a report showing that for each scholarship received the student attended the full year, or that refunds were issued if the student left the school would be a good start, she explained.

She also said it was important for states to verify that a school is viable, especially if it's a new school.

"The last thing you want is for a school to start up and then close half-way through the school year because it couldn't make it," she added.

Marcavage said ideally financial reports would comply with standard accounting procedures, be audited to ensure the report is free of misstatements and accurately represents the costs to educate the student, and include proof that the school is able to repay any funds that might be due to the state.

She added that the reports would be limited only to the records relating to scholarship recipients.

Ohio has two other scholarship programs but because one is for special needs students and the other is for students with autism, they were not included in the report's rankings.

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