Many Ohio newspapers are reporting that the state’s new voucher program, EdChoice, which students begin benefiting from this fall, is faring poorly. They point to implementation problems and low interest on the part of students and parents.
To be fair, there have been numerous difficulties in implementation. The state education department had to create a new office to administer the program, private schools had to be educated about the program and its potential impact on their school cultures and budgets, and parents, many in the state’s toughest neighborhoods, had to be informed about the program.
For all the work, just 2,600 children trapped in Ohio’s lowest performing public schools will take advantage of the vouchers this fall. (Only students in schools rated in “academic emergency” or “academic watch,” the state’s two lowest ratings, for three consecutive years are eligible.) The state has provided funding for up to 14,000 vouchers.
But compared with other districts and states sporting similar programs, Ohio is well ahead of the game—and the future looks bright. Thanks to the Ohio General Assembly, the Ohio Department of Education, and nonprofit groups in cities such as Dayton, Columbus, and Cincinnati, 5.5 percent of 46,000 eligible students applied for a voucher. That number far surpasses the 0.7 percent of students in Milwaukee, the 1.7 percent of students in Washington, D.C., and the 0.3 percent of students in Florida who took advantage of voucher scholarship programs the first year they were available. All three of these programs started more slowly than ours, and all three are flourishing today.
Critics of the voucher uptake in year one are likely to be the same district school officials and their allies that dismissed charter schools during their first year. It’s worth noting that Ohio’s charter school population exploded from about 2,200 students in 1998 to over 70,000 students in 2005. If the state’s voucher program experiences the same level of growth, one can reasonably expect the 14,000 voucher cap to be reached by the start of the 2008–09 school year, and for there to be pressure from parents to raise this number higher.
Far too many Ohio children still face the dim prospect of returning to failing schools this fall. It’s no wonder that on June 12, Speaker Husted announced that a second voucher enrollment period will be offered for families from July 21 to August 4. We know from loads of public opinion data (see Halfway Out the Door) that parents in Ohio want choice, and with the EdChoice program—and plenty of information—we suspect they will seize it.