"Parental Rights"

Do Vouchers Truly Provide "Choice" for Poor Students in Cleveland’s Public Schools

Voucher advocates claim that the Cleveland program helps poor families who want to leave public schools. Yet, during the program’s first year, $1.6 million—almost 25 percent of Ohio taxpayers’ cost—went toward the tuition of students already enrolled in private schools.22 In fact, a recent study conducted by the Cleveland-based research institute Policy Matters Ohio determined that one in three students participating in the voucher program was already enrolled in a private school prior to receiving a voucher.23 In addition, according to the United States Court of Appeals decision that ruled the program unconstitutional, almost 40 percent of the students receiving vouchers in the 1999-2000 school year were above the poverty line.24 Similarly, in 1998 the state auditor reported that 113 vouchers were awarded to families whose incomes were more than twice the poverty level. This finding led the state auditor to recommend that the Ohio General Assembly clarify whether the law’s intent was to award vouchers to poor students.25 To date, legislators have not provided such a clarification.

Furthermore, there were efforts in the 2001 legislative session to make vouchers available to the children of wealthier families. One state representative introduced a bill that would have at least doubled the dollar value of the voucher—a proposal that, if ever passed, could double the cost of the program as a whole. At the same time, a state senator proposed to expand the program to 35 districts that were deemed to be in a so-called "academic emergency." All students in these districts—regardless of income—would be eligible for vouchers, further undermining claims that the program targets low-income students.26

Moreover, the Akron Beacon Journal has reported that Francis Rogers, a state official responsible for designing the student selection process for the Cleveland voucher program, told his boss that the selection process used during the first year appeared to favor higher-income children over poorer children whose names had been originally selected in a lottery. Additionally, Rogers was reportedly surprised to hear about memos from voucher advocate David Brennan to former Governor Voinovich suggesting how the lottery should be run and seeking guaranteed access to wealthier students for Brennan’s own HOPE Academies—which, at the time, were voucher schools.27

Finally, it is voucher schools, not parents, that exercise the real "choice," often excluding students due to special education status, disabilities, behavioral problems, academic performance, religious affiliation or other factors. Brennan candidly wrote to then-Governor Voinovich in 1996 that "none of the existing private schools will be able to handle a seriously handicapped child." An Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman recently commented that while spokespersons for the voucher program did not expressly discourage applications from parents of disabled or special needs children, officials were informing parents that needed services might not be available in voucher schools. "Many Catholic schools are not equipped to handle handicapped children or do not offer the services they need," she said.28 This is significant, given that Catholic schools make up roughly 60 percent of the participating Cleveland voucher schools.29 Moreover, these findings underscore a fundamental distinction: private schools, unlike public schools, are not required to educate every child.30 And this fact is not unique to Cleveland. A 1998 survey by the U.S. Department of Education of private schools in large inner-cities found that between 70 and 85 percent of schools would "definitely or probably" not be willing to participate in a voucher program if they were required to accept "students with special needs such as learning disabilities, limited English proficiency or low achievement."31 And 86 percent of all religious schools expressed this same unwillingness to participate.32

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