CINCINNATI - Ohio’s rapidly expanding voucher and charter schools funding lacks critical accountability testing and consequences for poorly performing schools, a bipartisan panel of educators and state legislators involved in education agreed Thursday.
The five-member panel was convened by the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center to discuss the recently passed biennial state education budget. A standing-room-only crowd of mostly superintendents, principals and other educators listened intently.
The budget, which was proposed by Gov. John Kasich and modified by the Republican-dominated legislature, increases funding to traditional public schools by 4 percent to more than $15 billion compared to the previous year. The state’s 370-plus charter schools will also see a 4 percent increase in funding.
Charter school funding has ballooned from a $10 million pilot program in Toledo a decade ago to $900 million, according to Dr. Carlee Escue, an assistant professor in UC’s college of education. She said charters have been plagued by high teacher turnover, exorbitant salaries among for-profit charter owners and poor academic performances.
“I have a hard time accepting those types of funding level when I’m trying to educate my children in public schools,” Escue said.
Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner, a Republican who serves on the education finance subcommittee who voted for the budget, is a proponent of high-performing charter schools as an alternative to failing public schools. But she agrees that the current system doesn’t do enough to force reforms or the closing of charter schools that do a bad job.
“The focus should be on demanding quality from all of our schools instead of this endless debate between public and charter schools,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest change in the new budget involves eligibility for vouchers. Previously, only students whose public schools are deemed underperforming for two of the last three years could apply for vouchers to private and parochial schools. Now, students from low-income families are eligible regardless of how well their local public schools are performing.
“We’ve changed everything with this new criteria,” State Rep. Denise Driehaus said, pointing out that vouchers will likely siphon off high-performing students while leaving public schools to accommodate students with special needs, skewing the per-student costs for public schools. A Democrat, she voted against the budget.
Lehner fought to make testing mandatory for non-public schools who have 35 percent or more students who are using vouchers but settled for a standard of 65 percent voucher students, an improvement over no such provision in the past. Colleagues who believe the free market will force bad performing schools out of business resisted stricter government oversight.
The panel generally agreed that the new budget, which increases state funding for public and charter schools as well as a broad expansion of the state voucher program, is an improvement on the previous budget, which slashed funding in a season of budget cutting in 2011.
Andrew Benson, an education consultant previously with KnowledgeWorks, said the silver lining in the budget is the Straight A Fund, a $250 million pool of money available over the next two years for schools that seek alternative strategies and long-term success planning to boost student achievement and cost costs through rooting out inefficiencies. “It can be a game changer for Ohio if it works out as planned,” he said.
Robin White, president of Great Oaks, said her vocational training institution was surprised to learn that the budget dictates that her career center’s board of directors comprise only CEO’s, CFO’s or human resource managers of regional industries by Jan. 1, a daunting challenge.
For all of those who are unhappy with elements of the budget, Lehner and Driehaus agreed that they had to speak up even when proposals didn’t directly affect their own district budgets.
Lehner said a nearly identical proposal to expand vouchers was defeated in the last budget negotiations thanks to a tremendous outpouring from public school districts throughout the state. This time around, the expanded voucher funding didn’t directly hurt school districts the same way, she said, muting the protest, and the program sailed through.
“There are lots of forces in this country that are shouting loudly,” Lehner said. “You’re going to have to raise your own voices sometimes.”
Driehaus echoed the sentiment. “Don’t assume we know what you haven’t told us.”
Note: Bob Driehaus and State Rep. Denise Driehaus are first cousins.