Ohio’s Governor John Kasich has proposed a budget with greatly expanded funding for private school vouchers, writes Molly Bloom in NPR’s State Impact. Under new, broader definitions, as many as half of Ohio’s children could become eligible for state help in attending a private school.
Ohio already devotes about $100 million to subsidizing private school tuition for students who have special needs or attend low-performing schools, especially in Cleveland’s notoriously poor districts. Around 20,000 of Ohio’s school children are using these vouchers.
Kasich proposes setting aside $25.5 million over two years to pay for an expanded eligibility program. The greatest expansion would come in defining all students whose families meet the low income standard as automatically eligible, regardless of special needs or the quality of their public school. Bloom estimates that as many as 45% of children will fall into this category, since the line is drawn at $46,000 for a family of four. The governor’s expansion plan is not intended for all of these students, since it begins with kindergarten and will expand only to first grade in the second year of its funding.
These vouchers would initially be available to kindergarteners. The kindergarteners would retain their vouchers as they moved to first grade. Kasich administration officials said it was unclear whether first graders who did not receive vouchers as kindergarteners would be eligible for vouchers. State budgets cover two years, but the administration has said the intent would be for students to continue to receive vouchers in third grade, fourth grade and so on.
To placate critics of private school vouchers, Kasich’s funding does not count on subtracting from public schools when low-income students use vouchers to transfer out. The governor’s proposal includes another expansion for students who don’t meet the other criteria, including low income, but whose reading fails to progress in the primary grades. State tests of reading, through grade 3, could be used to show eligibility.
It’s not clear if those vouchers would be available only to individual students who struggle in reading or to all students in schools or districts that receive low marks in the new early literacy portion of the new school report cards.
Because failure to progress in reading would be counted as the public school’s failure, the state would deduct funding for a student who transferred under this eligibility program.
Although the numbers appear to include about half of the state’s school children, in fact, far fewer would actually use or even apply for vouchers. Experience with the current eligibility suggests that only a fraction of those eligible would actually choose to leave their local public schools. Ohio offers 12,000 vouchers for children with autism and other special needs, but nowhere near that many request to attend a private school. Most private schools find it difficult to work with children whose needs require extra staff, and it will take more time to develop schools for children with autism and other behavior and learning problems.
Ohio’s proposed voucher expansion is part of a nationwide increase in state experiments with mixed schooling models. Tennessee’s governor recently proposed expanding private school vouchers for students in low-performing schools.