Op-ed: Ohio Senate Bill 85 expands school vouchers despite evidence they don't work

'The wrong choice for Ohio'

Sarah Stitzlein is an associate professor of education at the University of Cincinnati, a co-editor of the journal Democracy & Education and a co-director of UC's Center for Hope and Justice Education

Ohio Senate Bill 85, which would expand the use of “opportunity scholarships” – a euphemism for school vouchers – is being presented as a way to give parents more and better educational options for their children. As an education professor who has studied school-choice policies for many years, I urge you and our legislators to reject this bill.

Sarah Stitzlein

Expanding school choice via free market ideology, a system that has served our country well in other areas, is appealing. But it should only be used in the context of education when research and evidence demonstrates its usefulness for real children, schools and communities. The reality is that this bill, and others like it, aren’t good for many students, taxpayers, or our democratic community.

Voucher results mixed, at best

Obviously, parents want the best for their children. That’s why some parents decide to use vouchers to send their children to private schools. But the results achieved by vouchers are mixed at best, and are often quite worse.

Voucher students have been found to underperform their public school counterparts in many states, including Ohio. Even in New Orleans – the hotbed of school choice – voucher student test scores have slipped below scores at public schools by 8 to 16 percent. This isn’t surprising. Studies show that private school teachers have less formal training and are more likely to use outdated curricula and less effective teaching methods.

Moreover, SB 85 opens up vouchers to students of any public district, no matter how high-performing it is. While school choice proponents often claim that vouchers are intended to rescue poor children from some of the worst public schools, that is certainly not the case with this bill.

Undemocratic values

Sometimes parents’ motivations for using vouchers is problematic. For example, some white and wealthier parents have used vouchers to remove their children from increasingly diverse public schools and place them in more racially and economically homogenous schools. Private schools themselves sometimes exclude or counsel out children they find undesirable.

In other cases, parents select private schools that teach undemocratic values, such as intolerance and inequality. Some of the religious schools that parents choose discriminate against people of particular sexualities or teach that one gender or group of people is superior to another. When it comes to SB 85, taxpayer dollars can go to even the most extremist versions of religions that teach anti-American values. This violates the civic responsibility of all schools to prepare children for citizenship and work in a country that celebrates diversity and freedom of opinion.

Right now, the Ohio EdChoice program doesn’t permit vouchers to be used at schools where tuition exceeds the value of a voucher. This rule would cease to exist if SB 85 is passed in its current form. This would allow wealthier Ohio parents to use tax dollars to supplement funds they already have for their child’s tuition to access more expensive and elite private schools. The poorest of children will be left behind in schools with much tighter budgets.

Even when well-intended, parents’ voucher choices don’t ensure quality schooling. You’d think parents would pull their children out of underperforming voucher schools, but that’s often just not the case. Competition and free markets don’t ensure parents choose the best-performing schools.

Not held to the same standards

Taxpayers further stand to lose by relinquishing accountability. Even with the testing provision in this bill, private schools simply aren’t held to the same standard as public schools. This jeopardizes our ability to hold schools accountable for the content and quality of education provided, as well as the ability of the public to oversee how their funds are spent.

Finally, voucher schools forsake local control by not having an elected school board.

While individual parents may have the best in mind for their own children when they use vouchers, the sum of these decisions jeopardizes the quality of future educational opportunities for all. As Justice John Paul Stevens warned in his 2002 dissent against the use of vouchers, their use “weaken[s] the foundation of our democracy.”

Almost two-thirds of Americans oppose vouchers, according to the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll. Most people recognize their shortcomings and their threat to the public education system, which is left behind depleted of resources and community concern.

School choice can take many useful forms, but SB 85 is the wrong choice for Ohio.

To read more about the evidence behind these claims, see Sarah Stitzlein’s new book, "American Public Education and the Responsibilities of its Citizens: Supporting Democracy in an Age of Accountability" (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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