EdChoice not a choice next year

I remember waiting for the classroom assignments for my kids to be posted on the front door at Boulevard Elementary the week before school opened. This was part of creating excitement for the upcoming school year.

Now I watch for the EdChoice “designation list” to be posted on the Ohio Department of Education website. This list names the public schools that the legislature has characterized as failing, and determines where the state can award performance-based vouchers. Vouchers are publicly funded scholarships to private schools.

I am pleased to report that the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District is not among the 57 districts where new EdChoice vouchers will be authorized for the 2023–24 school year. Being named on this list, in which a school is officially branded a failure, is loaded with an expensive stigma. I am glad this misrepresentation of our public schools and students is finally gone.

Ohio has two kinds of EdChoice vouchers—income-based, which are available to any household with income at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, and performance-based, which gives students a way to leave a school listed as failing, even if they never attended that school. Building a narrative of failure is essential to justifying privatizing education. That’s why voucher advocates like state Sen. Andrew Brenner trash public education whenever they can. Oddly, it doesn’t lead them to recommend ways to improve the public system.

The state’s testing program gives lawmakers a convenient way to define failure, even if it is biased against schools serving poor children. It is inappropriate to use standardized tests for high-stakes decisions. The designation list is based on indefensible evidence.

In 2020, just as the list was about to include nearly every school district in Ohio, Sen. Matt Huffman orchestrated a last-minute rule change that made performance-based vouchers a program for high-poverty school districts only. He knew wealthy school districts would be up in arms once the designation extended beyond schools serving children of color in urban neighborhoods.

The rule changes now limit performance-based vouchers to the lowest-performing schools in districts where 20 percent or more of the students are eligible for assistance under Title I. The EdChoice designation has haunted our high-poverty district since 2015. Using test scores to determine eligibility trapped us forever. No matter how hard our teachers work, aggregated test scores won’t capture real progress. Teachers can’t make poverty disappear.

While the unfair failure label has been lifted, there is no way to bring back the public funds that were diverted from our public schools. The damage is permanent, even if the designation is not.

As the number of schools designated for performance vouchers starts to shrink, the privatizers are now shifting the emphasis to income-based vouchers. Gov. DeWine’s budget proposal would make income-based vouchers available to families with incomes near 400 percent of poverty, or nearly everyone. Income is much easier to assess than quality. If approved, it will give lawmakers an escape route from their irresponsible performance-based system and will achieve what they’ve always been after: universal public funding of private choice.

Advocates for privatization now claim public funds for private education as a right. They have dropped any facade that vouchers are about quality or financial hardship. They are willing to replace our public system and its service to the common good with private choice.

Public education and private education are not the same. There is no legitimate justification for transferring public funds to a system that does not exist for a democratic purpose. We may be off the list, but privatization is still ours to fight.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.

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Volume 16, Issue 5, Posted 1:32 PM, 05.01.2023