Audit Criticizes Cleveland Voucher Program
Supporters of the state-funded private-school-voucher program in Cleveland say they are unfazed by a recent batch of bad news contained in an academic evaluation and an independent audit.
The evaluation, although preliminary, found that voucher students have not done any better academically in the first year than their peers in the Cleveland public schools.
And the audit, released late last month, says the program may have misspent as much as $1.9 million in 1996-97, its first school year in operation. The voucher program had a budget of about $5.25 million in 1996-97, and it has a budget of about $7.1 million this school year.
Some $1.5 million of the questioned expenditures involved student transportation. During the program's first year, the audit says, many students were transported to their private schools by taxi, at a rate of $15 to $18 a day, because the Cleveland school district did not have enough buses or drivers to provide transportation.
The average cost of transporting students by school bus is $3.33 a day, according to the audit done for the state by the Cleveland office of Deloitte & Touche LLP.
Administrators of the voucher program say the transportation problem has been addressed this school year.
"We would not have had the problem if the [Cleveland] school district provided the buses we need," said Bert Holt, the administrator of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program.
The Cleveland program this year provides vouchers worth as much as $2,250 each to 3,000 low-income students in grades K-4. The students attend 55 religious and nonreligious private schools in the city.
It is one of two major voucher programs providing public money to low-income children to attend private schools. The other is in Milwaukee, where state courts have prohibited an expansion to religious schools.
Although a state appeals court struck down the Cleveland program last year as a violation of the state and federal constitutions, the Ohio Supreme Court has allowed the program to operate while it reviews the case.
Voucher opponents say the academic evaluation and the audit reveal flaws in the program.
"There are many hidden costs that citizens don't realize" come with the voucher program, said Michael Charney, a spokesman for the Cleveland Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers that is participating in the legal challenge to the program.
He pointed to parts of the audit revealing that some families failed to document their income qualifications for the program.
"This audit confirms the anecdotal stories we've received about how middle-class families are manipulating the voucher program to get a subsidy for tuition support for private school attendance," Mr. Charney said.
However, the audit suggests that most of the income-verification problems dealt with the inadequate provision of documentation. The audit did not suggest there were any significant number of participants who did not qualify on the basis of income.
The audit indicates there were similar paperwork problems with families' verification of their residence in Cleveland and with confirmation of the legal status of nonparents who said they were the guardians of voucher recipients.
"We're talking about a group of people who have a difficult time with a system that requires quite a bit of documentation," Ms. Holt, the program administrator, said.
She said many of the audit's concerns have been addressed in the second year.
However, the Ohio State Controlling Board, a state budget agency, recently agreed to shift $3 million to help cover a budget shortfall in the program. State education officials say the initial budget estimates were too low because the program was started from scratch.
The evaluation of the academic side of the program, commissioned by the state education department, was led by Kim K. Metcalf of the school of education at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
The team evaluated 94 3rd grade voucher recipients against a sample of 449 3rd grade students of similar background who remained in the Cleveland public schools.
Both groups took the TerraNova Survey-Level 13 tests, a CTB/McGraw-Hill assessment.
The researchers' analysis of the results found that, after accounting for socioeconomic background and demographic factors, "there are no significant differences in achievement between scholarship students and their [school district] peers."
Mr. Metcalf said it's too soon to draw any conclusions about the effect of the vouchers.
But every shred of achievement data over the Cleveland and Milwaukee voucher programs has been fodder for a high-stakes research battle that is being watched by educators and policymakers around the country.
A separate study of schools that opened from scratch to serve Cleveland voucher students found gains in reading and math for students in grades K-3. That study, of the Hope Central and Hope Ohio City schools, was conducted by Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University, William G. Howell of Stanford University, and Jay P. Greene of the University of Texas at Austin. ("Statistics From Cleveland Add Fuel To the Voucher Debate," Aug. 6, 1997.)