Friday, December 20, 2019

OH: Voucher Crisis Looming

When does a voucher program lose support? When it comes for the wealthy white districts.

Ohio has quietly been working to become the Florida of North when it comes to education, with an assortment of school choice programs that are like a cancerous growth gnawing away at the health of the public school system. But now, due to a collection of lawmaker choices, the privatized schools of Ohio have dramatically advanced their bid to consume public education. And somer lawmakers have noticed.

"Hey! I would like to speak to a manager!"
Ohio has followed the basic template for implementing choice-- get your choicey foot in the door with some modest programs that are strictly to "save" poor, underserved students from "failing" schools. Then slowly expand. Only, somehow, somebody screwed up the "slowly" part.

Next year, the number of "failing" districts in Ohio will jump from 500 to 1,200. The voucher bill for many districts will jump by millions of dollars. (If you like a good graphic, here's a tweet that lays it out.) And the list of schools whose residents are eligible for the EdChoice program include districts that are some of the top-rated districts in the state.

It might not matter that top districts are now voucher-eligible-- after all, parents can just say, "Why go to private school when my public school is great?"-- except for one other wrinkle. Next year ends the requirement that voucher students be former public school students. In other words, next year parents who have never, ever sent their children to public schools will still get a few thousand dollars from the state. Districts will lose a truckload of money without losing a single student.

House Speaker Larry Householder has presided over plenty of choice expansion and school privatization (and been praised by Jeb Bush's right-hand lady of privatization, Patty Levesque, for it), but even he sees some problems with the current trajectory, and has declared that something has to be done, toot de suite. Mind you, his phrase is "soften the blow" and not "stop the funneling of public tax dollars to private schools." He has previously proposed an assortment of softening agents, but he seems to have increased his sense of urgency. “We have failed badly as far as our report card system and our testing system in this state,” Householder told reporters in his Columbus office.

Meanwhile, February 1 kicks off the EdChoice application period for next year.

Householder thinks the problem is the school grading system, and that whole thing needs to be tweaked. By a coincidence, a committee report released Monday suggested that Ohio needs to do away with the business of giving A-F letter grades for schools for a variety of reasons, though personally I think "It's dumb and doesn't tell you anything useful about the school being graded" is more than enough. In the annals of accountability ideas, A-F grades for schools is one of the worst; it provides schools with zero actionable data. The only thing it's good for is a blunt instrument to set policies for closing down public schools or chicken littling your way to pro-privatization policies ("Look at all these public schools with a low grade!!"). A-F grades are not about helping schools improve; they're about punishing them, gutting them, and replacing them. Of the policy groups involved in the committee, only two argued in favor of the A-F grades. One is the Ohio Excels, a group of Ohio business folk who have decided that they should get to set education policy in Ohio, because they want to. The other was Fordham Institute, the right-tilted, reform-pushing, charters-in-Ohio-running thinky tank.

Meanwhile, Sen. Teresa Fedor doesn't believe the Ohio GOP is serious about fixing the coming voucherpocalypse, noting that A) they've known this was coming since the budget, complete with various last-min ute sneaky voucher addendums was passed and B) they've been called back to session about a week before the Feb. 1 opening of voucher season.

So we'll have to wait and see. It could still happen; the Ohio legislature is aces when it comes top speedy stealth legislation, and when they really want to get it done, the last minute is thirty more seconds than they need. On the other hand, the only thing that seems to be wrong here from the reformster perspective is that the voucher expansion came too quickly and may potentially alarm too many people to whom legislators might have to actually listen. Again, nothing about this expansion is out of line with a voucher rollout as a matter of substance or policy; the only problem is the speed with which it's barreling into Certain Neighborhoods. Someone cranked up the heat on that pot of frogs a little too swiftly.

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