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Education at a Crossroads: What Works? and What’s Wasted?

Dialogues

September 12, 1997

by J. Kenneth Blackwell
Treasurer, State of Ohio

Chairman Hoekstra and members of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, thank you for allowing me to appear before you today.


The monopolistic public school system in Ohio just doesn’t deliver for too many parents and students. If parents must raise their children in a failing school system they have no options. They are held hostage by assigned, geographically controlled districts whose first priorities are the needs of the bureaucracy. It is time we get serious about providing equal and quality educational opportunities for all of Ohio’s children, regardless of where their families can afford to live. Empowering families through school choice provides this equality of opportunity.


The Ohio legislature is currently grappling with two Ohio Supreme Court orders, first to design a complete systematic overhaul and second to create a new funding system. The theme of this hearing today applies to the challenge faced by the Ohio legislature. They too must find out “What Works,” and “What’s Wasted.” To find out what works, they need look no further than Cleveland and the students and parents who use vouchers.


The city of Cleveland is pioneering Ohio’s effort to introduce school vouchers. The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program was enthusiastically embraced by parents of approximately 7,000 children. Only around 2,000 were able to get in during its first year, in 1996. Thousands more parents remain hopeful that they, too, will be selected for vouchers and be empowered to choose the best educational opportunity for their children.


Why? Voucher students consistently show substantial academic gains. Harvard University researchers tested students from two independent schools, where we sit today, at HOPE Central Academy and HOPE New City. They tested in the fall and again in the spring. All 350 students in the HOPE academies are voucher students, with average family income of less than $7,000 per year. Most HOPE students come from very poor, inner-city neighborhoods. These HOPE students showed overall test score improvements, with large gains in math and reading skills. These results confirm earlier studies which found substantial academic progress by voucher students in a similar program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


Last spring, the Ohio House Education Committee held hearings right here at HOPE Central Academy to discuss the voucher program. The testimony from parents at those hearings should resound with Ohio lawmakers. After the hearings, The Plain Dealer reported that Pamela Ballard-Hunt, who is scheduled to address you later, said her oldest daughter, then a third-grader at HOPE, went from D’s and C’s, to A’s and B’s. She said, Going to HOPE Central has made a dramatic change.” Another parent, Jon Douthit, said that public school was a chaotic nightmare for his daughters.


Unfortunately, alternatives such as voucher plans are criticized as a slippery slope that will destroy Ohio’s public schools. That’s wrong. School choice will destroy the public schools’ monopoly and improve public schools’ performance in the process.


Many advocates for a new education delivery system in Ohio look to the Cleveland experience with school vouchers as a precursor for an entire systemic change throughout the state. We need to intensify this commitment to the voucher concept by embracing a Child Centered Funding system of education. Such a system places the needs of children above all others.


Child Centered systems of education fund schools directly through children, not through districts. It would allow every child to attend any school that participates. Child Centered systems greatly advance the concept of school choice, from the current limited Cleveland voucher program to a statewide education delivery system that encompasses all children. Best of all, Child Centered systems allow parents to say, “if my child is not learning not only am I going to remove him/her from the school but I am going to take my money with me.”


Child Centered Funding introduces free-market choices to parents. Unlike our current system, a school operating under a Child Centered plan would compel the school’s success to depend on student’s success. Right now, folks get paid whether or not the district accomplishes its mission.


Following are a few aspects of the Child Centered Funding plan currently being considered for Ohio. I have attached a brief overview of the details of Child Centered Funding for your further review.


EDUCATION GRANTS


Child Centered Funding would work through a system of state-funded educational grants, similar to the Cleveland Scholarship program. The system would be administered through the current county Education Service Centers, formerly known as county local school boards. Grants would be provided to parents or legal guardians of school-age children. The exact amount would be determined by the state. Each grant would follow the child to the school of their choice. The grant would go to a particular school only after the parent or guardian and designated official signed off on the check.


All school-age children would be eligible to receive an education grant. Separate grant programs will be created for special education, developmentally handicapped students and vocational education students. All public schools would be required to participate in the grant system.


The education grants under a Child Centered Funding system would be administered similarly to the G.I. Bill, which veterans have used to attend public, parochial and private colleges for decades.


LOCAL CONTROL


Allowing parents to strap their school tax dollars to the backs of their children also provides the purest form of local control. In a Child Centered Funding system, local accountability would be a contractual relationship between the school and the state or an alternative certifying agent, such as a public university, local school board or state school board. The school would agree to meet certain standards in a five-year span. Such standards include proficiency test scores, the attainment of certain promotion and academic achievement targets, and assessment of curriculum plans. If the state or the certifying agent determined that the district did not meet the standards as laid out in the contract, the public school could lose access to education grants at the end of the five-year contract.


FUNDING


Funding for a Child Centered system of education could be done through various approaches. The funding mechanism must preserve local control while enhancing accountability and revenue stability. It must also be linked to educational opportunity and be easily understood and tracked by parents, teachers, and education policy makers. Rudy Crew, chancellor of New York City schools, the largest public school system in the country, was the first to provide parents with comprehensive budget information. Such disclosure allowed parents to make a concrete assessment on the financial condition of their schools.


It is important to note that a Child Centered Funding system of education would require schools to seriously consider and implement privatized services such as transportation, janitorial or food service. Privatizing some services would provide opportunity for innovation and cost effectiveness.


CONCLUSION


In conclusion, let me pose a question. Can anyone name one public school in Ohio that has closed because of poor performance? I have asked this question on a number of occasions across the state. I have yet to hear of an example. And poor performing schools do exist in this state. In fact higher spending school districts in Ohio, like Cleveland, on average have lower test scores, lower graduation rates, lower student attendance rates and higher drop out rates. As consumers of education, schools with these kinds of attributes are unacceptable. In a Child Centered Funding system of education, such under performing schools would improve or suffer the consequences of a market-based system.


As members of this sub-committee your task today is to learn about education, what works and what’s wasted. And you’re in the best place in the nation to see what works. HOPE Central Academy, with students here under the Cleveland Scholarship program represent what I hope is the future of education in Ohio.

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