The outer limits of school choice

When we talk about educational choice on these pages, we are mostly speaking of charters, vouchers, digital learning, and the like. But in Fordham’s home state of Ohio, educational choice encompasses several other options, of which many families regularly avail themselves. Two of those “outer-limits” options have been in the news recently.

Opting out

In law, they are called “non-chartered, non-tax-supported” schools—NCNTs. In parlance, they are called “508 schools,” after the part of the Ohio Administrative Code that describes them. In reality, they represent the furthest distance of “schools” from government oversight. Among the “entanglements” with state government: the setting of a minimum length of the school year and school day should be; the reporting of pupil population, withdrawals, and adds; minimum teacher qualifications; health and safety rules; and the requirement that a “regular promotion process” must be in place and followed (although it is clearly up to each school to determine its own process).

NCNT schools are something like homeschooling co-ops but with a structure more closely approximating that of private schools—tuition fees, group classes, social activities, field trips, and even sports. But NCNT schools are truly free to create whatever structures they like—strong religious grounding, classical education models, Montessori methods—as long as no one is concerned about obtaining a diploma backed by the state of Ohio. Luckily, colleges have discretion as to the credentials they’ll accept. To quote the Ohio Department of Education, “Other schools, colleges, universities and employers have discretion over decisions regarding the acceptance of transferred credits, graduation credentials or a diploma being issued by a non-chartered school.” It’s not exactly a crap shoot to reach college from a 508 school, but it’s far from a sure thing.

And those folks must not be concerned. There are over 340 such schools in operation in Ohio for the 2013–14 school year, with names like Galaxie Learning Academy, Kopasetic Christian Academy, God’s Teen School, Absorbent Minds Montessori School, Alektor Academy, and Veritas Classical Christian Academy. They are numerous, and the field is growing—the number of schools statewide up nearly 12 percent from the 2012–13 school year.

Recent news stories from Southern Ohio seem to indicate that the fight against Common Core implementation and related testing may be a spur for further growth in NCNT schools (see our earlier note about regular promotion processes). Parents are perhaps coming to realize that “opting out” is the only sure way to keep their children from Common Core. In fact, the Marietta Times notes that NCNT schools have actually become the most common form of school choice available in their area.

Opting in

Open enrollment has also seen its share of media attention of late. In Ohio, districts can choose to open their schools to neighboring districts or even to all students from outside their boundaries—or they can choose to remain closed. Here is how the situation has stacked up in the 2013–14 school year:

Source: Ohio Department of Education (includes 614 traditional districts and 49 vocation schools)

Nearly 72,000 students are taking advantage of open enrollment statewide this school year, and its popularity is growing—more than doubling in the last ten years.

A recent series of hatchet pieces and an editorial in the Akron Beacon Journal have tried to paint open enrollment as reinstating segregation and leading to the demise of free sports and art programs. Inevitably, discussion of open enrollment focuses on “winners” and “losers” and often boils down to money: net gainers of kids are happy, net losers of kids are not. State superintendents have deemed “quality programming” the reason that folks flock to a district, but those same supes seem to have no idea why students would leave.

In something of a twist, one district in Northeast Ohio, a net gainer of kids, has recently decided to reduce the number of open-enrollment students they will allow in next year—not due to a lessening of parental interest but apparently due to guilt. The district from which they were receiving the most students is so broke that it’s considering merging with a third district to save costs.

The state was concerned enough to convene a taskforce—chaired by outgoing Reynoldsburg superintendent Steve Dackin—to review open-enrollment policies and procedures. Their final report made recommendations around per-pupil funding options, facilities funding, extracurricular activities, special-needs students, and student-performance reporting on district report cards.

The one thing the task force didn’t comment on: shrinking or curtailing open enrollment.

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