When I began my career as a public school teacher some 25 years ago, I had no crystal ball to see how education theory and practice would evolve. Back then, no one talked about charter schools, highly qualified teachers, or value-added assessments. But in retrospect, I recognize that I was witness to choice in action.
In a private school where I worked, parents used their personal resources to shape their children's futures. Now, as a six-year member of a public school board in Bexley district, rated Excellent by the State of Ohio, I have had the privilege of watching teachers, parents and students share in the process of determining what's best for each school and the children in them. Parents choose to move into the district I call home because they value its high-quality learning environment.
But what about those children who don't have the means to relocate to high-achieving district schools, whose educational needs aren't being met, or who want an education more closely aligned with their family's values and beliefs? Today's challenge is to bring the same sorts of quality choices that Bexley's parents enjoy to these families of lesser means.
Recently, I've been involved with the creation of a new umbrella organization for Educational Choice in Ohio, aptly named School Choice Ohio (SCO). Headquartered in Columbus, the purpose of SCO is to further the school choice movement in the Buckeye State by educating the media, policymakers, and the public about the value that choice brings to Ohio's families. We are also working to advance the state's Education Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, which will offer vouchers for families of children in persistently failing schools. The organization's overall goal, of course, is to support and advance educational innovation and excellence in whatever setting it occurs, public (district or charter) or private.
Thanks to the budget bill signed by the governor this past June, 14,000 school vouchers will be available in 2006-2007 for students enrolled in public schools - district and charter - that have been rated in Academic Emergency for three consecutive years. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) estimates that some 20,200 students will be eligible. Approximately 41 percent of those eligible students are from Columbus, 25 percent are from Cincinnati, and 21 percent from Dayton.
School Choice Ohio has been involved in reviewing the draft rules for voucher implementation that have been distributed by ODE. We've noted some significant challenges in implementing the program. For example:
- ODE's draft rules would require families in the program to reapply each year, an unnecessarily burdensome step not consistent with the intent of the legislation. Once families become part of a private school community, the school should handle re-enrollment issues with the department. This is an unfair burden to place on families.
- The Legislature allocated funds for implementation of the voucher program, but if ODE allocates the majority of those funds for website development, state personnel and database management, the most pressing implementation needs facing parents who would actually use the vouchers may not be met.
- Students who previously attended a school rated above academic emergency, but who are slated to attend a poorly rated school next year (for example, those transiting into a middle or high school), are not eligible for a voucher. Such a setback is inconsistent with continuous achievement.
Leaving these issues unresolved will not only create difficult situations for students and their families, but will also be an implementation nightmare for schools on both ends of the exchange.
School Choice Ohio has met with representatives from ODE, and other stakeholders, in search of solutions to these and other implementation challenges. We believe that Ohio's voucher program should be delegated to a nonprofit organization, one with experience in voucher distribution, such as the Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF). WSF administers the Washington, D.C., voucher and has partnered with other D.C. organizations to successfully implement and support the program. In other cities, non-profit organizations have played a central role in implementing, advocating for, and marketing private scholarship programs (for example, PACE in Dayton). The Children's Scholarship Fund also places a critical role in funding and supporting private scholarship programs in communities across the country.
These private scholarship organizations are singularly focused and experienced and can help cut through the red tape that discourages families seeking to change schools. They are also embedded in their communities, and know how to provide local support, marketing, and advertising through outreach centers that maximize program participation. In short, these organizations have track records of successfully implementing private voucher programs; those records of accomplishment can be leveraged to the benefit of the state voucher program.
Without a strong commitment to market to, and support, eligible families, the Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship Program, one of the broadest and boldest such initiatives in the country, will not change the lives of those most in need educationally.
So, back to the question in the title, what's a former teacher like me doing in a place like this? The answer is simple. I, like other former "traditional" educators - superintendents, administrators and teachers - want to provide every child in our state with a quality, life-changing education. At School Choice Ohio, we'll work tirelessly to help ensure that all parents have quality choices for their children.