Ohio Moves to Stem Abuse of New Vouchers
State warns schools about end-of-year enrollments by private school students.
The Ohio Department of Education this month put school districts on notice that some parents have sought to game the state’s new voucher system for students in low-performing schools.
State officials say they have learned that, in a few cases, parents of children already in private schools have tried to enroll students in public schools where they would be eligible for the private-school- tuition aid.
“The Ohio Department of Education absolutely does not encourage this practice,” wrote Kimberly A. Murnieks, the chief program officer for the statewide voucher program, in a June 6 e-mail to districts.
The notice came just days before the June 9 deadline for families to apply for the vouchers, which can be used at secular or religious private schools. With plenty of vouchers, and open private-school spaces to spare, the department has announced that it will hold a second application period, from July 21 to Aug. 4.
Ohio this fall will welcome the first round of students to its statewide voucher program, which lawmakers approved last summer and is separate from its 11-year-old voucher program for Cleveland.
So far, the state has received nearly 2,600 applicants, well below the ceiling of 14,000 students who may participate. Some 46,000 students are eligible for the program, which offers vouchers worth up to $4,250 in grades K-8, and $5,000 for high school, to any student attending a public school in one of the two lowest categories of the state’s academic-accountability system for three straight years.
Making a Statement
While critics suggest the application rate, about 5.5 percent, is low, voucher advocates say they consider it robust when compared with the first year of voucher programs elsewhere.
Susan C. Zanner, the executive director of School Choice Ohio, a nonprofit organization established by the state last year to help with outreach, said it takes time to educate families, and then for families to take the steps needed.
“You have to go to the private school as a parent and a child, see if it’s a good fit, then take their required test for admission,” she said. “It’s not as if you can fill out an application on a street corner.”
Ohio has two voucher programs that provide aid for tuition at secular or religious private schools: one specifically for Cleveland, and another for the rest of the state.
EDCHOICE SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM
Value: Up to $4,250 per child for grades K-8 and up to $5,000 for high school.
Eligibility: Any student in a public school that for three years has been in “academic emergency” or “academic watch,” the two lowest levels under Ohio’s accountability system. If demand exceeds supply, a lottery is to be held with preference given to students from low-income families.
Student participation: 2,568 students had applied for the 2006-07 school year by a June 9 deadline. Applications also to be accepted July 21-Aug. 4.
School participation: 256 private schools have said they will participate.
CLEVELAND SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM
Value: Up to $3,450, with state paying either 75 percent or 90 percent of school’s tuition, depending on family income.
Eligibility: Cleveland residents entering grades K-8 may apply, but vouchers may be used through grade 12. Students selected by lottery if demand exceeds supply, with preference given to those from low-income families.
Student participation: Roughly 5,600 students took part in 2005-06 school year.
School participation: Currently, 43 nonpublic schools in Cleveland, plus public schools in neighboring districts.
Ms. Murnieks said in an interview last week that “with any new program, it just takes a while to penetrate public consciousness, but I think that so far, the outreach efforts have been very successful.”
But Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, a vocal critic of vouchers, called the program “underutilized.” And he suggested a connection between the application rate and the reported last-minute attempts to secure eligibility.
“Word got out that the vouchers were not being utilized,” he contended. “There was actually, in some cases, an organized effort to encourage parents to go enroll in the public schools without ever intending to have their child set foot in one.”
Ms. Murnieks said the June 6 notice to districts came after the state had heard of some limited instances in which parents were improperly seeking the vouchers.
“There were isolated incidents, but I wanted to make a statement,” she said. “The public schools were wanting some guidance about how they could deal with such a situation which, obviously, was out of step with the intent of the program.”
The note to districts outlines the state definition for an “enrolled” student, but also said it will offer deference to districts in making final judgments in cases where parents attempted to enroll students in the final days or hours of the academic year.
Ms. Murnieks said the department will offer some recommendations about whether the state should make any administrative or legislative changes once it studies the matter more closely.
Earlier this spring, Ohio expanded the program’s eligibility pool, which is tied to the state’s accountability system.
Originally, it was limited to students who attend schools rated in the state’s lowest academic category, “academic emergency,” for three consecutive years. But the legislature in late March amended the law to make the vouchers accessible to students in the state’s second lowest category, “academic watch,” for three straight years.
The voucher program gives first preference to students from low-income families. Students from 23 school districts and 99 individual schools are currently eligible for the vouchers, Ms. Murnieks said.
Some news outlets have raised concerns about the application rate.
“Are the dollar amounts high enough?” The Columbus Dispatch asks in a June 9 editorial. “Does the state need to give private schools more incentive to participate? Most important, what can be done to make sure Ohioans know that the option is available?”
Mr. Mooney suggested that the program’s design creates barriers. He noted that, to get a voucher, a student must be accepted by a particular private school, and the school may decline to enroll a student, whether based on space constraints or the failure of a student to meet entrance requirements.
“I suspect that they are looking for students who will, quote, fit in, unquote,” he said. “I don’t mean that as a criticism [of the schools]. … That’s why they’re called private schools.”
Ms. Murnieks disputed Mr. Mooney’s reasoning.
“I have not had complaints from families that they were unable to find a private school [to attend],” she said, though she conceded that not all students may get their first choice.
“Some schools are more selective than others,” she said. “Some schools have more enrollment capacity than others.”
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