Graduating to a new conversation about choice

The Fordham Institute’s enterprise in Ohio weighed in over the weekend on the prospects of additional school options in the Buckeye State, and it did so with characteristic balance. Neither Terry Ryan nor Mike Petrilli are ever bashful to highlight the mixed results of many school options, and they’re smart to embrace “accountability done right” in a way that many advocates for choice do not. But just as importantly, they’re deft at bringing clarity to debates that too quickly rage out of control.

“The genie of school choice is out of the bottle,” Ryan wrote in the The Columbus Dispatch in response to the coming political storm in Ohio over the proposed Parental Choice and Taxpayer Saving Scholarship Program. In other words, though one more private option may feel like “piling on to some,” Ryan says, private and public options have thrived in Ohio since the 1990s, and it’s time we had a new conversation where we leave old fears behind.

More than 75,000 students are enrolled in some 350 charter schools. The EdChoice Scholarship Program provides vouchers to students in failing schools, and it is set to expand from 14,000 to 30,000 students next year. The Autism Scholarship Program now serves more than 1,300 youngsters. More than 7,200 students participate in the Cleveland scholarship program, Ohio’s oldest. In June, Ohio added a special-needs voucher program that will provide support of up to $20,000 to eligible students to attend private schools.

Ohio’s school districts also have a number of choice programs: magnet schools and alternative programs, STEM high schools and Early College Academies. And 429 districts allow students from anywhere in the state to attend their schools via open enrollment. (Another 90 allow students from adjacent districts to enroll.) And thousands of families have moved in pursuit of better educational options for their children.

The challenge, Ryan adds, “is to ensure that quality keeps pace with quantity and availability.” Regulation is a four-letter word to many voucher proponents, but Ryan makes the case that “accountability is the partner of choice”:

The latter creates space for innovation and new options, while the former drives change and pushes for continuous improvement. Accountability exposes poor performers and charlatans, while also highlighting successful schools.

The challenge facing policymakers is that, while many voices clamor for widened choice and the opportunities that go with it, far fewer demand accountability for performance. Getting the balance right will determine whether school choice in Ohio succeeds or fails to improve student outcomes. It also could serve as the basis for political détente around school-choice issues.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit