Some Thoughts on Yesterday’s redefineED Chat

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of following along on the redefineED website as they hosted a chat with Michael Petrilli of The Fordham Institute. A transcript of the chat can be found here:

The chat was a good Q&A that addressed some of the critiques of Fordham’s “Toolkit” and what the overall goal is for more testing and other so-called accountability measures for students on vouchers. Here are a couple of thoughts that I had following the chat:
1. Do Ohio students really need more tests? Since Fordham has an on-the-ground presence in Ohio, I think it bears mentioning what already exists in Ohio. I’m not aware of any student in a chartered nonpublic grade school, whether on a voucher or not, who isn’t taking a nationally-recognized standardized test beginning in grade 3, with the school choosing the assessment. I’m not aware of any school that does not share those results with parents and do not know why they would refrain from doing so. Also, as mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, all chartered nonpublic high school students must pass all five parts the Ohio Graduation Tests in order to receive a diploma, with Ohio being the only state to have such a blanket requirement for students at secular private schools. Those tests will increase in number and difficulty with the adoption of the new end-of-course exam requirements. It’s likely that those new tests will require curriculum changes at private schools in order to accommodate the new tests, although based on the OAIS v. Goff case, it’s questionable if that’s even constitutional.
It’s clear that in comparison with other states, Ohio already goes overboard with testing for nonpublic school students. With these levels of testing already in existence for all students, it’s difficult to understand why there needs to be a change in the testing mandate for students on vouchers that requires certain tests to be administered to certain students or in some cases all students, in addition to the tests already recommended by the school’s professional staff.
2. Vouchers and tuition don’t always reflect the investment of parents into their child’s education.  This was a question raised by Rabbi A.D. Motzen that wasn’t exactly answered. Voucher amounts can vary based on a school’s tuition and, in the case of the Special Needs and Autism programs, based on a student’s degree of differences, with one constant being that the amount of the voucher cannot exceed the amount of tuition charged. However, the amount of the tuition can, and often does, exceed the amount of the voucher for students who do not fall below the poverty levels set in statute. However, the accountability proposals in the Toolkit do nothing to recognize this. For example, if a student receives a $5,000 voucher for a school that charges $5,000 in tuition, that is a clear-cut case of the state wholly subsidizing the child’s tuition. However, what happens in the case of a student receiving a $5,000 voucher for a school or for services that cost $20,000? In these cases, and cases even less extreme than this, the parent is assuming much more of the responsibility for the tuition than the state is, yet the desire of the parents’s views on accountability would appear to be secondary to the state’s demand for testing. This is fundamentally unfair to the parents and the student, all in the name of “apples to apples” comparisons.
3. Reducing needless regulations is just as important as imposing more for the sake of accountability. As I’ve mentioned on Twitter, Ohio is notorious for regulating its independent schools more than any other state. We believe there ought to be just as much discussion of whether or not some of the regulations on the books, such as the mandatory graduation tests and some credit/curriculum requirements, do anything to enhance the quality of education at nonpublic schools, especially when the students are not on a state-funded voucher.
OAIS and others, including Ohio’s newest Council for American Private Education (CAPE) chapter will work to inform decision makers on the current climate of regulation for Ohio’s private schools and why many of the recommendations found in the Toolkit, while good-intentioned, are not a good fit for Ohio.

Testing and Accountability in Ohio’s Private Schools

In the last several days, there has been a great deal of discussion on Twitter and on the blogosphere regarding the use of standardized tests in private schools, both for students on vouchers and the student population at large, depending on the number of students receiving vouchers in the school. The Fordham Institute kicked things off with its Public Accountability and Private-School Choice Toolkit and since then, many have weighed in to agree or disagree, including Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation, Matt Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog and Rick Hess on the Education Week blog, among others.

I feel private schools in Ohio might be a little more sensitive about this topic than most, given our history. In 1995, Ohio became the first, and to this point still the only, state to require all students in chartered nonpublic schools to pass a state-mandated standardized test in order to receive a high school diploma. Initially passed six years earlier, the 9th Grade Proficiency Test was not originally intended for nonpublic students but was extended to them years later in exchange for other considerations requested by nonpublic organizations other than OAIS. For independent schools, this is significant because Ohio is the only state to require secular schools to be directly chartered by the state in order to hold themselves out as schools, leaving no other option for existence. This means that, unlike religious schools that have an objection to state oversight, all secular independent schools must be chartered by the state or they cannot exist.
While Ohio has a strong history of oversight over private schools, it also has a strong history of directing public funds to the operations of private schools. Since the late 1960’s, Ohio has provided pupil transportation to students attending private schools; since the mid 1970’s, Ohio has provided auxiliary funds for the purchase or leasing of secular materials or services for use in private schools; since the 1980’s, private schools have received administrative cost reimbursement for the paperwork and other effort necessary to comply with state mandates; and since the 1990’s, Ohio has had one of the most generous voucher programs of any state.
It is in this context that independent schools in Ohio look at the proposals for so-called accountability through standardized tests with skepticism. Ohio does not have a strong history of rolling back regulation for the benefit of private education; instead, the rules and regulations that independent schools must follow seem only to creep up in numbers. The result of this regulatory creep has been to make some private schools look more and more like public schools, to the point where it seems the only difference between some is the requirement to pay tuition. While some might look at the funding that our schools receive that private schools in other states do not, it is also important to point out that schools cannot opt-out of the regulations if they opt-out of the funding, meaning there is no appreciable relationship (other than with the administrative cost reimbursement) between the regulations and testing we must endure and the funding we receive.
OAIS schools, especially those with high school grades, operate with a simple accountability structure. The schools are accountable to the student, to the parents and to higher education. Students at OAIS schools expect to be well-prepared to receive a college education (and the Ohio Board of Regents information proves they are), their parents also expect them to be well-prepared, and colleges expect them to be well-prepared. The accountability in this situation is pretty basic: If colleges determine the students coming from an OAIS school aren’t typically prepared for college, they will stop admitting the students. Parents will not want to pay tuition for a student to attend a school where they will not be prepared to go to college, and students won’t want to attend a school where they have a difficult time gaining admission to the college of their choice. There is nothing government can do to improve upon the accountability of schools in this case. No PARCC exams or set of graduation requirements can affect the accountability of a school better than parents simply refusing to pay the tuition to send their children to a school that is demonstrably not living up to its end of the deal.
So what accountability does a state-mandate series of exams provide to those who attend and support independent schools? Not much. If parents demand that this kind of testing regimen be implemented for their child, one of two things will happen: the school will do it or the parent will be encouraged to send their child to a school that does use them. If colleges and universities start to demand these tests be used, one of two things will happen: either the schools will administer them or the graduates of schools that don’t use the tests won’t get into the colleges they want to attend.
It is undeniable that the main reason OAIS schools do not participate in voucher programs is because of the amount of regulation (testing) that goes along with that participation (Just ask a head of school and they’ll tell you!). If the concept of accountability it to make sure that schools are holding up their end of the bargain, the market-based accountability described above is going to do more for everyone that a standardized test will.
If voucher and tax credit advocates want these schools to participate, instead of advocating for more testing that is not being demanded by parents or colleges, they should work with schools to find out what can satisfy the state’s need for accountability while not impeding the mission of or wasting the time of school administrators, teachers and parents.

New OAIS Blog

As part of the outreach by OAIS to members of the public, the OAIS website will now feature a blog where I plan to discuss some of the items currently being discussed in the education community and their impact on independent education both in Ohio and nationally. Ohio has long been an outlier (in good ways and bad) when it comes to the relationship between state government and nonpublic schools. It is my hope that the blog can be used to add some perspective to larger discussion from the point of view of independent schools in Ohio so that the community might have a better idea of where our schools are coming from and what can change to benefit our schools, our students and our state.

Welcome and thanks for following along!
Dan Dodd