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Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Obstacle Course

Obstacle Course

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Once Ohio lawmakers passed voucher legislation for students in Cleveland, supporters believed the tough part was behind them. But those charged with implementing the program have found the going anything but easy.


Bert Holt was never one to walk away from a challenge. When she first came to Cleveland in 1961, she says, an unwritten rule often kept blacks from teaching at the secondary school level. So, with her high school credentials in hand, she got assigned to an elementary school.

But she stuck it out, and after a federal judge ordered the desegregation of the city's schools in 1976, she helped organize training programs aimed at smoothing the transition to a more integrated system. Later, she coordinated another vital part of the court-ordered remedy: the creation of school partnerships with community organizations and local businesses.

Today, though, she says that none of the challenges she faced during her three-plus decades with the city's public schools compares with what she's gone through in the past 31/2 years.

Since 1995, Holt has directed Cleveland's voucher program, a venture at the center of one of the most polarized national debates in education. From its inception, the initiative has been the target of hard-fought challenges in both the state's courts and in political arenas throughout the country.

Recent action by the Ohio Supreme Court has ensured that the program Holt runs will be on shaky ground right up until she retires at the end of this month. Two weeks ago, the court issued a mixed ruling. It upheld the program on most federal and state constitutional grounds, but invalidated the way lawmakers created it. The decision has sent voucher supporters in the legislature scambling to authorize the program anew before the current fiscal year runs out June 30.

While she expected the state-enacted program to encounter controversy, Holt says she has been thwarted time and again by unnecessary obstacles and unfair accusations, among them two critical audits. At times, she even feels she's been made a scapegoat and is convinced that some of the hurdles she faced were no accident, especially those she encountered early on. "This program," she says, "was not supposed to be."

Whether her office was the victim of sabotage, benign neglect, or honest mistakes, Holt's trying tenure offers an important lesson for those pushing for vouchers in other cities and states. Getting a novel program up and running after voucher legislation is passed can be as much of a battle as those fought in courtrooms and statehouses.

"Anytime you're doing a program of this nature, where you have a complicated political situation, and a large group who are for it, and an equally large group against it, at every opportunity people are going to take their shots," says Robert L. Moore, the assistant state superintendent who acted as Holt's supervisor at the Ohio education department until last month. "It is a very, very tough program to run."

Nineteen hundred and ninety-five was a watershed for the movement to give parents public assistance in paying for private school tuition. That year, the Wisconsin legislature approved both the addition of religious schools and a tenfold increase in enrollment for Milwaukee's 5-year-old voucher pilot. At the same time, Ohio lawmakers seized on a crisis in the 74,000-student Cleveland public schools to make that city only the second in the country to host a large-scale program.

The federal judge overseeing Cleveland's 19-year-old desegregation order pronounced the district "a ship without a rudder" in March of that year, and ordered the state to assume control of the system's management. Cleveland by then had seen a half-dozen superintendents and interim chiefs come and go over the previous decade, its budget faced a $29.5 million shortfall, and as many as 25 buildings were beyond repair.

When the legislature failed to approve Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich's plan for a statewide voucher program, the fallback proposal was to run a pilot in what most agreed was the state's most troubled system. If Cleveland was so bad that it had to be taken over by the state, supporters argued, then surely the state should give students there a chance to escape to better schools.

Many Democrats, and the state's powerful teachers' unions, protested that not only would such a plan violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion, it would also rob an already struggling system of a significant chunk of its students. But with GOP majorities in both legislative chambers, Mr. Voinovich managed to secure passage for a pilot program that included religious schools from the outset.

After a Wisconsin circuit court issued an injunction blocking the Milwaukee expansion, Cleveland--where Gov. Voinovich had once served as mayor--became the first U.S. city where students could use publicly financed vouchers to attend religious schools.

Despite the revolution taking place in Columbus, the state capital, early in 1995, Bert Holt says she wasn't paying close attention.

"I did not really have any interest then," she says. "I'd seen the legislation, but I thought this wasn't going anywhere."

At the time, she was getting ready for what she felt was a well-deserved retirement. During her tenure with the Cleveland district, she earned a reputation as someone who could work independently and who wasn't daunted by having to tackle previously untried tasks.

When she was given the job of recruiting community and business sponsors for the schools in the 1980s, Holt brought in many of the area's largest employers, including the General Electric Co., the oil and gas company BP America, and Case Western Reserve University. The idea was that each would lend expertise and personnel to help improve individual schools.

It was a satisfying endeavor for someone who grew up surrounded by educators. Holt's father had taught microbiology at West Virginia State College, in the town of Institute, and Holt attended a high school on the campus. Both her school and the college were all black until the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka prompted the integration of the state's education systems. During the family's time in Institute, Holt's mother co-founded a preschool program to serve local families.

But by 1995, Holt was feeling the same frustrations about the Cleveland district that had led to the judge's takeover order.

"When I left, it was in such a disarray--financially and academically," she says. "A new superintendent would come in, and he or she might be able to bring in a couple people, but the same old entrenched, dysfunctional bureaucracy was in place. The same old folks who knew how to undermine and keep power and finances where they wanted them to be would not allow for any forward movement."

Holt's retirement was a month old when she got a phone call in September 1995 asking if she would run the state's nascent voucher program.

From the beginning, it was clear the initiative would be an unusual hybrid. Holt reported to the state superintendent in Columbus but was based in Cleveland, where she had to work with the local school district. And though financed with public funds, the program would use private institutions to serve its constituency.

When she officially went to work that November in a downtown building housing the Cleveland offices of several other state agencies, "there was nothing here, not even a paper clip on the floor," she recalls.

With fewer than half a dozen full-time employees and temporary workers back then, her office had to put in place a system to encourage low-income parents in the city to apply for the tuition aid, verify their eligibility, choose the voucher winners, and help them enroll their children in schools.

She had little more to guide her than the few pages of the program's authorizing legislation.

Using the networking skills she'd honed at the public schools, Holt enlisted the help of community organizations and local church and business leaders in spreading the word to potential applicants. She also met with the city's private school leaders to find out how many seats were available and to solicit advice on how the program should be run. Early in 1996, she held an event resembling a college fair so that parents could meet with representatives from each of the participating private schools, most of them Roman Catholic.

"When we talked to all of the principals of the Catholic schools," Holt says, "the main thing they were concerned about was not so much taking a group of students from a certain kind of [academic] level, but they did not want to be caught up in reports, and in bureaucracy, and guidelines. They did not want to lose their autonomy."

As a result, Cleveland's voucher program handles more of the administrative burden than Milwaukee's. For example, though both programs use chance to determine who gets a scholarship, Milwaukee requires each school to select its voucher students by random drawing if it has more applicants than open slots. In contrast, the program administrators in Cleveland hold the lottery first, and then the winners apply to the private schools.

At first, the Cleveland program's "assurance of compliance" form that participating schools had to sign included the requirement that voucher students would be chosen "by lot" from among the applicant pool. But the policy was changed and the provision literally crossed off the form after some schools objected to the restrictions, Holt says.

"They didn't want to be hampered in terms of accepting students," she says.

As a result, even though many participating schools accept students on a first-come, first-served basis without regard to their academic records, the Cleveland program doesn't require them to accept voucher recipients on a random basis. If some winners don't get into one of the schools, or decide not to use the assistance, their vouchers are given to students on the program's waiting list.

The Cleveland lottery process is also complex in that it divides applicants into several categories before the drawing. As a result, Holt's office can ensure that the lowest-income families go into the pool first, and that the program maintains a racial mix of 70 percent African-American and 30 percent "other"--roughly the same composition as in the Cleveland public schools. (Milwaukee uses a strict income cap equal to 175 percent of the federal poverty level, but no racial quotas.)

Holt also decided her office would be responsible for verifying eligibility--another departure from Milwaukee, which leaves that task to participating private schools.

While Holt and her staff were in the midst of setting up the new system, the program faced its first courtroom test. A state judge upheld the legislation just weeks before its first school year--1996-97--was to begin. Now, nearly three years later, following the Ohio Supreme Court ruling, the voucher program is back in the hands of the legislature. "Just the fact that we got the program up and running in six months was itself a miracle," Holt says.

What gave the Cleveland program the biggest headache early on was transportation.

Ohio has long required public school districts, whenever reasonable, to provide bus transportation to students attending state-approved private and religious schools. The presumption, says Holt and officials from the state education department, was that the Cleveland district would transport the voucher students on its buses. Based on its authorizing legislation, however, the program had to reimburse the district for the cost out of its own budget.

But as the fall 1996 opening of school approached, district officials said they could not handle the majority of the students in need of transportation.

Holt saw the district's stance as an attempt to derail the program. "When I got that call, I said, 'How am I going to transport these kids?' " she says. "The schools were opening the next week. We were supposed to fold up our tents and go home."

She believes the education department could have forced the district--which by then was under state control--to provide the buses.

But John M. Goff, who served as Ohio state superintendent from 1995 to 1998, says his department didn't initially realize the magnitude of the management problems in Cleveland that it was trying to untangle. Even without having to transport the new voucher students, the Cleveland public schools were having trouble running their own transportation system, he says.

"We were told several times by people down in the transportation area that things were under control, and then later we were told they weren't," says Goff, now retired to South Carolina. "I think there were people down in the ranks there who didn't care if this program was successful or not."

Without buses, program administrators did what Holt says they had to do. They arranged for several hundred of the program's 1,900 participants that year to get to school by taxi, at a daily cost of $15 or more per child. In comparison, busing costs about $3.33 a day per child. It was an imperfect solution, Holt acknowledges, but one that had the education department's approval.

What surprised Holt is that the problem repeated itself in the first few months of the program's second year, when she was again told that the district could not provide transportation for most of the voucher students who needed it.

"I took it as another barrier," she says. "That would have stopped us cold if we could not move the children."

But what Holt saw as a valiant stopgap later touched off a public outcry.

Late in 1997, an audit of the program by Deloitte & Touche questioned some $1.9 million in spending during the 1996-97 school year--$1.4 million of it related to the transportation of voucher students. (The next year, in fact, the cab costs reached almost $2 million.)

Largely because of the cab charges, state officials in 1998 had to approve $2.9 million in additional state aid for the voucher program, which until then had a budget of $7.1 million for that year.

That children were going to school by taxi was, of course, no surprise to Holt, but the news grabbed headlines by the score. A typical Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial protested that "the blame goes to bureaucrats, namely those who have failed to control exorbitant transportation ... costs."

Holt felt much of the blame was being directed at her office in Cleveland, even though it was the school district that hadn't provided the buses. To have the situation "turned to look as if I had done it," she says, "was absolutely devastating."

The Deloitte & Touche audit did, however, point to one undeniable problem: The taxi companies had been charging the program regardless of whether the students had ridden in their cabs. When Holt's office compared school attendance records with the invoices, it found the taxi providers had significantly overcharged, she says. Her office is still seeking reimbursement for more than $276,000.

To Holt, there was a silver lining, however. Outrage over the cost overruns prompted the state legislature to amend the voucher law so there was no question that the Cleveland public schools would provide bus service to the program's students. The lawmakers also removed transportation from the program's budget; now, the district gets reimbursed directly from the state for transporting voucher students--similar to the way that other Ohio districts are compensated for busing private school students.

As a result, just 95 voucher students routinely took taxis to school this school year.

Moore, the assistant state superintendent, agrees that Holt's office was not to blame. "The transportation issue could have been avoided totally if the legislature had mandated from the beginning that the kids be transported like any other kids," he says. "Most of the things that we were hit with were things that were out of our control."

The criticism didn't stop with the taxis, however. Jim Petro, the state auditor, this past January released his own review of the Cleveland voucher program, which raised even more questions. A press release accompanying the report cited "significant financial-control issues, most notably a lack of guidance from both the legislation authorizing the program, and policies developed by program staff."

This time, press accounts zeroed in on Petro's claim that the voucher program had awarded at least 23 scholarships to students whose family incomes were between $50,000 and $90,000 annually. The news appeared to run counter to the idea that the Cleveland initiative was intended to serve low-income parents exclusively. Upon the report's release, state Sen. C.J. Prentiss, a Democrat and a vocal opponent of vouchers, told Education Week: "This pilot appears to have been totally mismanaged. ... People have taken the money and done whatever they want with it, without any kind of oversight."

As the Petro report itself pointed out, though, the voucher legislation didn't set an income cap for eligibility. Instead, it stated that the program "shall give preference to students from low-income families." The statute only calls on the state superintendent to set criteria for determining whether the program should pay 75 percent or 90 percent of tuition, up to a maximum of $2,250. Superintendent Goff decided that families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level would get funding at the 90 percent level; those with higher incomes would get 75 percent.

Therefore, only applicants with incomes below the 200 percent threshold are put into the program's lottery. Those with higher incomes are placed on the program's waiting list, Holt explains. If enough lower-income families don't use their vouchers, the names of higher-income families may be taken from the list.

Holt keeps a stack of letters from education department officials giving her permission to award scholarships to higher-income families. "Don't you think that if I had been over 200 percent and wasn't supposed to be, that there would have been some kind of criminal investigation?" she asks.

Moore supports Holt's perception. "The biggest statement in that audit was about the legislation," he says. "The program has been implemented perfectly."

But Petro, a Republican who holds an elected position, disagrees with Moore's assessment of his report. "I really do believe that with an eye toward fiscal prudence that they could have done some things more effectively," the state auditor says.

While pointing out that the program lacks an income cap, his report also criticized the processes used to verify student eligibility, an issue first raised by Deloitte & Touche. Petro's audit noted, for example, that in some cases "documentation of proof of residency included in the student's files consisted of out-of-district driver's licenses, birth certificates, county identification cards, and a hunting license."

Holt insists that Petro judged too harshly.

To be sure, her office has tightened its rules over the past three years. Driver's licenses and income-tax filings are no longer accepted, she says, because there's little guarantee they reflect the truth. All applicants must now sign affidavits swearing that the information they provide is correct. And all correspondence is sent to parents in nonforwarding letters; a red flag is raised when the post office returns unopened mail.

But a program like Cleveland's voucher initiative also needs to be flexible, Holt argues. Some participants live in homeless shelters, so they lack rent receipts and utility bills to show residency. And among the transient poor, children often stay with adults who aren't their legal guardians. So Holt accepts a wide range of documents.

"There are instances where the mother is in prison," says Holt, who released her own 17-page response to the state audit. "So they divide the children up. One may be with auntie, and one may be with a grandparent. And yet, there's been no legal change of guardianship. That's unusual, but it happens.

"Number-crunchers are fine," she says of the auditors, "but they have to understand the humanistic aspects of education in an urban environment."

The auditor's report also raised questions about the voucher initiative's tutoring program. Often forgotten, the pilot's formal title is the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, and its authorizing legislation says it "will provide for a number of students ... to attend alternative schools, and for an equal number of students to receive tutorial-assistance grants while attending public school."

But while 3,674 students are now receiving vouchers, only 1,168 are getting after-school tutoring. In part, Holt blames a lack of interest among Cleveland public school teachers--who make up the bulk of the tutors. state law, the program pays tutors only $10 an hour. Holt also suspects guilt by association: Teachers opposing the voucher program may be reluctant to work for a tutoring initiative tied to it.

A recent policy change now allows tutors to double their hourly earnings by tutoring two or more students. Holt also says she expects the tutoring program to expand significantly in the fall with the increased pressure for improvement being brought to bear by the district's new superintendent, Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Although Petro remains critical of the program, he lays much of the blame on the education department, which he says understaffed the effort. "Ultimately," the auditor says, "the folks in Columbus put together the staff in Cleveland, so the state department of education bears the responsibility for the operational weaknesses."

With four permanent employees and as many temporary ones, however, Cleveland's voucher program now has more than twice the staff of Milwaukee's initiative.

And of the two, many would argue that the Wisconsin pilot has come closer to falling victim to the misuse of funds. In 1996, two private schools participating in the Milwaukee program were shut down when a state audit showed they had vastly inflated their reported enrollments of voucher students, overcharging the state by as much as $390,000.

In contrast, Ohio has yet to have to take such drastic action. A few participating Catholic schools in Cleveland voluntarily returned some money to the state the first year. Both school and education department officials say the schools themselves alerted the program administrators of the need for the adjustments. None wound up having to return more than $6,500, Holt says.

The only apparently intentional attempt to take advantage of the Cleveland program, Holt says, occurred two years ago when one of her temporary employees entered a boyfriend into the database of tutors, allowing the man to collect about $800 for which he wasn't entitled. Holt quickly fired the woman and reported the incident to the education department. The boyfriend returned the funds, and a judge placed him on probation.

"From the beginning, I've said I'm going to be as correct as I can," Holt says, "because people are going to try to destroy this program."

That's how Holt views many of the difficulties she's encountered. She's recently gone so far as to accuse state officials publicly not just of inattention, but of actively trying to undermine her efforts. She said as much this past January at a press conference in the wake of Auditor Petro's report, when she reiterated her opinion that the state could have forced the district to provide transportation earlier.

At the same time, she even suggested that someone within the education department purposely caused her office's computers to crash in the program's first few months. She still talks of finding suspicious cables running from the computers into a nearby closet.

"As an African-American female administrator," Holt says, "I've learned that if you're not paranoid, you're crazy."

Thomas F. Needles, who served as a senior adviser to Gov. Voinovich (now a first-term U.S. senator), offers a somewhat different view of Holt's difficulties.

"I don't know whether it was intentional," he says. "I'm more inclined to believe that we have good public servants in the department of education. At the same time, I would respectfully suggest that this program was orphaned time and again."

Department officials dispute any claims of sabotage.

Goff, the retired state superintendent, concedes that when it comes to vouchers, "I have a concern personally about using taxpayer dollars in that way." But when the legislature charged his department with launching the Cleveland initiative, he says, "the key staff in the agency made the commitment to run that voucher program to the best of our ability."

He points out that his staff was downsized by state lawmakers in 1995, just when the agency was supposed to start lending additional support to the Cleveland public schools.

As a consequence, he says, he couldn't release any of his deputies to work full time to help get the voucher program off the ground. Instead, he gave that task to Moore, who's also responsible for charter schools and other urban education programs. Last month, the job of supervising the voucher program was shifted from Moore to another assistant superintendent, who also handles other programs.

"Could we have been on top of some things better? Yes, there's no question we could have been," Goff says. "I think Bert deserves a lot of credit, given the short time we had to put a system in place for something that hadn't been done before," he adds.

Only recently does Holt believe she's started to get some of that credit.

Last month, the state education department released the results of its own review of the voucher initiative in the form of a "Procedures Manual" outlining the program's policies. Though prompted by Petro's audit, the manual's executive summary states: "It is important to note we did not identify significant breakdowns in the internal-control systems."

Far from providing another fault-finding assessment, the inch-thick document reiterates procedures Holt established as the appropriate guidelines on which the program should continue to run under its next director. The state education department announced two weeks ago that Saundra Berry, who now directs the department of internal audits at the Cleveland public schools, will take those reins next month.

"I've been in those situations where I've had to be very instrumental in having to clean these programs up," says Donna Hairston, the department's internal-audit administrator who carried out the review. "But this wasn't like that at all."

Though feeling "exonerated" by the document, Holt points out that its positive assessment has generated far less public interest than the earlier critical ones. "This does not deliver me from all the hurt and embarrassment that I've felt."

As for the most recent chapter written in the program's legal saga, she views the action in a positive light. The Ohio Supreme Court invalidated the initiative because lawmakers tacked it on to the state's general budget in 1995. But the court did uphold voucher supporters' central legal argument: Such programs do not create unconstitutional entanglements between church and state.

Holt also was encouraged by how quickly the Republican-controlled legislature moved to begin hammering out a solution to keep the program alive. In contrast to earlier debates, she believes the discussion was more about saving the initiative than it was about the program's shortcomings.

"People understand the program a lot better now, and they understand its accomplishments," she says. "The barriers have not all gone away, but they did not keep us from getting our job done."

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Pages 22-27

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