Ep. 134: Choice in the States – Ohio with Chad Aldis

September 5, 2019

In this episode of our Choice in the States series, Director of Policy Jason Bedrick talks with Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at The Fordham Institute. They discuss the growth of Ohio’s 15-year-old school choice program, the Autism Scholarship Program, and the journeys of the state’s four other programs.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice and today we’re going to be discussing the school choice programs in Ohio. Joining me today is Chad Aldis, the vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at The Fordham Institute. Chad, thank you for joining us.

Chad Aldis: Happy to be here, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: So, Ohio is interesting in that there are five different school choice programs. The first one is perhaps one of the most famous school choice programs, and that was the Cleveland voucher program that was enacted in 1995. How did that come about?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. The Cleveland Scholarship Program was an effort by the folks in … Well, it initially started in there was an attempt to get a statewide program. When the political leaders at the time, most especially Governor Voinovich realized that wasn’t going to happen, the shift then was toward seeing if we could get a program, a pilot program so to speak, for the city of Cleveland, recognizing the educational challenges the city of Cleveland faced and still faces in many ways. The goal was to try to really empower families with a wider variety of educational options there. It had been a big buildup to it. There was a task force full of a lot of notable business folks, including David Brennan who recently passed away, a school choice pioneer in Ohio and nationwide, who were a part of this effort. The end result was a scholarship program focused, much like Milwaukee’s, on the city, in this case, on the city of Cleveland.

Jason Bedrick: The students participating in the program, they have to be low income, correct?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. Well, they did initially. They were given first priority. Now, any students in the city of Cleveland are eligible to do that. They just have to reside in the district. It is based upon funding availability. It’s one of the weaknesses probably of that program. It’s a line item appropriation in the state budget, so if there’s not enough funding available, then first priority in any given year where there aren’t enough, where funding is insufficient to meet demand, then first priority goes to low-income students.

Jason Bedrick: Right, and those students are, they have to be below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $50,000 annually for a family of four. Now, I mentioned this is a famous program and that’s to a great extent due to not only because it was one of the first voucher programs, but also because it had the first legal challenge that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the famous Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case. Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of that case and the outcome?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. Well the folks who put together this program I think kind of anticipated that it would be challenged, and they structured it very carefully. It is actually, of course, I think had, as we talk a little bit about what happened and the decision, I think you’ll see parts of it impacting a voucher and tax credit program structure in much of the nation. What you had here was they realized the benefit, at least they believed so, the benefit had to go to parents and not to private schools as the main beneficiary. That ended up being an important turning point in the case when it went to the Supreme Court. The vouchers themselves are made out to, in the names of parents, and sent sort of in care of the, sent to the private school, but the primary beneficiary and the named person receiving that is the student and parent.

The other thing I think that’s notable about it is that you ended up having, it wasn’t just for going to a private school, or a religious private school. You could go to non-religious private schools, but you could also use it initially, although it hasn’t been done much, there was an option to go to other public schools using the voucher. That was something I think that was important in the court’s decision saying this is really just empowering families with an option, but not saying, not for the benefit of religion, but instead for the child’s educational benefit. It took a number of years to wind its way through the courts as it typically does, but it was a very big day for school choice and a number of these types of provisions you will find in voucher programs all over the country.

Jason Bedrick: Right. The challenge from the opponents of the program was based on the First Amendment. They argued that it violated the establishment clause because the students were using the vouchers at religious schools, and therefore they believe that this was an unconstitutional form of support for religion. But you argued that, or you explained that the Supreme Court, held that it was key that the funds were actually going to the parents. Why is that, why is there such an important distinction between money going to parents versus funding going directly from the government to a religious school?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. I think it really boiled down to the beneficiaries, I mentioned that word before, the beneficiaries of the program, and that it wasn’t a direct payment to a religious entity for this service. It ended up being for the benefit of the students themselves. It didn’t necessarily by right go to the private school or a religious school. The primary public purpose of the funds was the students’ education and there were non-religious options available for the students to attend. I think that was one of the, as we’ve talked about, one of the key deciding factors.

Jason Bedrick: It’s just sort of like somebody that has Medicaid. The key is that the government is supporting this person’s access to healthcare, and if they want to use it at a Catholic hospital, or if they want to use it at a secular hospital, the government’s not really concerned. The key is that they have access to healthcare. In this case, the beneficiary, we don’t say the beneficiary is the hospital, the beneficiary is the patient. Likewise here, the beneficiary is the student. Whether the parents, as long as they have access to secular options as well as religious options, then there’s no establishment clause issue.

Chad Aldis: That’s correct. You see the same thing in the post-secondary with Pell Grants and financial aid being able to be used at a wide variety of institutions, including religious schools, religious universities. It’s good that that provision has, that the court case applied that very soundly to K–12 education.

Jason Bedrick: This was obviously an issue in Ohio because, and around the country, the question of the constitutionality of the program after the Supreme Court weighed in, the ice sort of thawed on that argument and you had a number of programs enacted after that, including in Ohio. What came after this opinion?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. Fairly shortly after the 2002 decision Ohio enacted in 2003 a scholarship for students with autism. When that program was being debated it really was an attempt to get a voucher for students with all disabilities, but it ended up being, as these things often are, an element of compromise in it. Just as the Cleveland program had initially been desired to be statewide and had to focus only on a city, an autism scholarship ended up coming out of the 2003 legislative session and launched in 2004. That program has grown steadily for the last 14 years now. Any student in the state of Ohio with autism can receive this scholarship, even if they first attend a private school. There isn’t a prior year and attendance requirement that we see in a lot of voucher programs. They do have to have an IEP, but they’re able to go to their school district of residence and request an evaluation and to get an IEP. It’s been a very important tool for families in Ohio.
Also, one thing that makes it a little bit unusual and a little innovative is it almost was a precursor to ESAs in that the money doesn’t have to go entirely to the private school that the student attends using the voucher, but there are approved providers that can be various therapists, whether it’s speech or cognitive therapy and behavioral therapists. Providers can be approved to participate in the autism scholarship. The parents can decide, okay I want $10,000 of the scholarship to go to tuition at the school and I want to put together this assortment of other providers to provide services. In that way I guess it was a little bit ahead of its time.

Jason Bedrick: The scholarship sizes are quite significant. They can go all the way up to $27,000 per pupil, and the average is about $23,000 per pupil. You mentioned it’s grown steadily. In the first year there were only about 100 students participating, but this past year we had about 3,500 students. That’s pretty significant, especially when you consider the Cleveland program originally had fewer than 2,000. That’s up to almost 9,000 students today. They received scholarships just under $5,000 per pupil on average. The Ohio autism program is serving a fairly large number of students given the population size.

Chad Aldis: It is, and it has had a really passionate advocacy base. For a long time the scholarship was limited by statute to $20,000. It’s only been in the last few years that it was increased to $27,000, which isn’t the exact amount that traditional public school students with autism receive according to our, we have categorical weights for students with disabilities in Ohio, so typically the student would get $30,000 or $31,000, but it was a nice victory for the school choice movement and for most importantly for the kids and parents in Ohio to a few years ago raised that scholarship amount from $20,000 to $27,000 as the maximum. We’ll continue to look for opportunities to increase that so that they get the true comparative amount that the students would generate in a traditional public school, but it still does make for a really strong program.

Jason Bedrick: You mentioned that the original intent was to open up the vouchers to all students who had special needs. They ended up compromising on autism, but advocates didn’t stop there. They did push for more. Could you tell us a little bit about the Jon Peterson Special Needs [Scholarship] Program?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. Well one of the interesting things is one of our, or the leading voices for the autism scholarship was a state representative named Jon Peterson. He had pushed for that while he was there and wanted it to impact all students. I think he long felt that they left a little too much on the table when they ended up passing a law that didn’t cover all students with disabilities. By that time, he had term limited out of the legislature, but there were efforts in 2005, 2007—we do most of our policy in budget years—which are the odd numbered years, 2009, and then finally 2011. There were efforts at amendments and at standalone legislation every year, a growing base of families calling for this scholarship, great success stories from autism scholarship recipients.
Finally, in 2011 in Governor Kasich’s first budget, we were able to cross the finish line and pass a special needs scholarship. It is one of those things, I think it’s an important reminder that even though you might be right in fighting for students’ rights, sometimes it takes a while to overcome some of the political hurdles and challenges that are faced, but the advocacy community in Ohio was incredibly strong and persevered when it would have been easy to become disenchanted. Now, of course, that program has grown tremendously as well over its first five years and is now serving just under 5,000 students.

Jason Bedrick: Right, and originally was serving about 1,300. The students participating in that program, the scholarship value is not quite as high. It’s about $10,000 on average, but still a significant level of support. Why this particular population? Why is it that these families for so many years are coming back to the legislature saying we would like access to this program?

Chad Aldis: Well, I think that has a lot to do with the failings of IDEA and FAPE in that in many cases for families to enforce their rights it requires lawsuits. If you’re a parent of a student with disabilities and you’re not happy with the way things are going and the provisions of the IEP, the individualized education plan aren’t being met, if your district doesn’t agree with you, you’re left to challenge it in court. That is a really, really difficult thing to do, an expensive thing to do for families. This, I think there were enough families that just felt like they needed some other option. They saw, the autism scholarship was a powerful example of how much more those families were empowered because they’re, because of having one specific disability versus all of the other parents who were like, “Well, why can’t my children receive the same flexibility?” I think that’s what really led to it. There was a loyal group of folks who just really felt that their students could prosper if they had these other options. I think generally speaking it’s proven to be the case. There’s been a lot of satisfaction.

I mean, you did mention the scholarship amounts. The good thing about the structure of this scholarship is the categorical weights that are in law are followed for the scholarship program. The fact that the average scholarship is low is merely a function of people with disabilities that happen to be somewhat lower funded, whether it’s speech issues, or some of the behavioral disabilities. That’s just happens to be, it’s just by the general weighting and usage of the program. The other thing is some of the students with autism that get under state law some of the highest categorical funding weights are all in the autism program. That probably keeps the average scholarship amount here down, but it does show you there’s a huge variety of students of varying needs who are able to utilize this program.

Jason Bedrick: So, students who have say cerebral palsy or down syndrome might be getting significantly more than a student who just needs speech therapy?

Chad Aldis: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. Well said. They might get $20,000, or they might even get up to the statutory maximum of $27,000.

Jason Bedrick: Now, we had mentioned that the autism program was enacted in 2003. It took nearly a decade before they were able to enact the special needs program, the John Peterson program. But in between the two they had some other successes, including in 2005 they enacted Ohio’s Ed[ucational] Choice scholarship program. What can you tell us about that?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. The ed choice scholarship program was kind of patterned after Florida’s old opportunity scholarship program. It was, the general thought there was when students are assigned to extremely low-performing schools that those students should receive an option to go to private school. It was very limited in nature. The first year it was rolled out there were very few schools, public schools, whose students were eligible for vouchers. Then over the course of probably three or four years they gradually increased the, or because of changes in the state accountability system, because of course you’re looking at school performance, so it was all tied into the state’s accountability system, gradually the number of students eligible for the program increased. But it was a program that again was thought to be sort of a safety valve and an option when your traditional public school had failed you.

Now from our perspective, that was an entirely too narrow view of school choice and what school choice should be, but this was a program that passed during the 2005 budget process and took a big lift to even get where it is and had some very strong legislative champions. John Husted, who is now the Lieutenant Governor elect, was a major important force in the adoption of the ed choice scholarship program. A number of other legislators who have since term limited out were also involved, but it’s an important program and really opened the door much wider to private school choice. Because at the time, when that was passed in 2005, Ohio only had a program limited to Cleveland and to students with autism. This all of a sudden you found schools, or students in 20 or 30 different communities and school districts who would have eligibility for private school choice. It was the beginning I think of the broadening of eligibility, but Ohio still has a ways to go in that regard.

Jason Bedrick: Right. I mean it has grown significantly. I mean a decade ago there were only about 3,000 students participating. Last year you had about 22,000 students participating. They receive scholarships on average of about $4,300. But you said that you thought this was sort of a too narrow understanding of school choice, that we were only going to offer school choice to students who are assigned to a district school that is low performing and that are low income. Why is that too narrow a definition?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. Well, if the idea is to ensure every student is in a school where they can be successful and in the school that’s working for them to put them on a path to success, and you want to empower parents to have that opportunity to find the school, I think what you saw is that in the ed choice program … Well, the ed choice program was limited to the lowest of the low. Typically, in its modern sort of eligibility sense, about 200 public schools out of Ohio’s more than 3,500 public schools are on the list in any given year. What that means is there’s about 100,000 kids eligible out of Ohio’s 1.8 million. What you don’t have though is you don’t have students in a mediocre school, a school that half the kids are doing OK, but a quarter of them are really struggling, and some of course are succeeding wildly because it’s a good fit for them.

But those ones who are struggling, if the school wasn’t on the list, and generally speaking it wasn’t, just playing the odds, you found that school choice wasn’t a reality unless their family could afford to move or they went to a charter school or some other Ohio school choice option. We just felt that too many students who were struggling and could really benefit from having a broader option didn’t have access to it. Very quickly, when I moved to Ohio about a decade ago in 2008, we were pushing every year to try to expand eligibility to include, well we’d love it to include everyone, but knowing that you’ve got to sometimes get incremental victories we were looking to expand it to low-income students of all types so that if you had a family that didn’t have options, who couldn’t move, who couldn’t maybe even afford transportation to open enroll into another school district, that they would have the opportunity to try to hopefully find a private school that would work for them, if that was what the parents thought was the best option.

Jason Bedrick: So, you might even have a student who’s at a school that’s high performing on average, but for that particular child it’s just not the right fit. They’re not thriving in that environment even though most of the students who are at the school are. But, you said you want to expand to everybody, but of course that’s not always an option. Incremental reform is obviously much better than no reform at all, and if you’re going to have incremental reform, you want to prioritize the most vulnerable populations first. Eventually in 2013 they did have yet another expansion with the adoption of the Ohio Income-Based Scholarship Program. What can you tell us about that?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. Well that program is a line-item funded in the state budget. It’s not funded like most of our school choice programs with a deduct from the dollars received by the school district. That was part of the political deal they got it done. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is that it has artificially limited the growth of this program. The last two or three years the number of applicants has exceeded the available funds. This year I think it was by about 2,000 students. That’s a shame because just as this was extended, well the program was expanded to include these students, we’re now saying no and closing the door to educational opportunity to some of the neediest families in the state of Ohio. It just strikes you as something that’s supposed to expand opportunity, because we weren’t able to get it done politically to make it broader, that has been unfortunate and has really limited options for, again, for some of our neediest families.

But one thing though to say is the beginning of school choice in Ohio, or broad school choice in Ohio—with the failing schools model, the initial version of the ed choice scholarship—really the biggest challenge it posed was in people’s minds, in legislator’s minds in Ohio and all sorts of policymakers, school choice belonged to when the traditional public school had failed. That was the underlying sort of base assumption they had. It was the premise they started with. That proved an incredible battle to overcome.

The ed choice income-based expansion would not have happened without the passionate dedicated leadership of a representative at the time, now a state Senator, Matt Huffman, who fought against very tall odds to work to get the program that we currently have, the ed choice income-based expansion. Despite its limitations, it was an incredible, in terms of the way it’s funded and how it’s limited, it’s limited choice. It also expanded choice in that all of a sudden even, to the extent funding was available, you had 600,000, 700,000, 800,000 families eligible based upon the income thresholds in the program. Still not where we need to be, but it was a tremendous step forward that really fought against a lot of political headwinds and I think needs to be recognized for that.

As families continue to flock to the program, which has happened every year with very substantial growth utilizing all of the funds available each year, we’re hopeful that eventually this program is going to get rolled up into hopefully into the other ed choice program and have much broader eligibility and ensure all families have access to meaningful private school options, in addition to charter schools, open enrollment and traditional public schools.

Jason Bedrick: Right now, I mean you mentioned that it has the potential, at least in terms of the eligibility, to serve a very large number of students. It’s only eligible to students who are not eligible for the ed choice program. If they’re eligible for ed choice, they go into the ed choice program. If they’re not eligible for that, it prioritizes students who are below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Then after that, students who are between 200 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty line, so about $75,000 for a family of four. Those students are receiving scholarships of about $4,000 on average. It’s higher for the lower-income families, slightly lower for the more middle-income families. It’s serving about 7,500 students roughly right now. But, as you mentioned, there are a lot of students who are on the waiting list and so it definitely has the potential to grow.

Besides formula funding it and making sure that there is access to every single child whose family wants to take advantage of the program, are there any changes that you would recommend for this program or for the other scholarship programs in Ohio?

Chad Aldis: Yeah. I think the number one thing for Ohio right now to improve its programs and sort of the ecosystem that we’ve created for private school choice is more eligibility. I mean, I know you said beside that, besides that, but I think that’s that’s important. We need to expand it to more families. We’ve done a good job with students with disabilities. Cleveland students have good access. Although, it is a little limited by funding as well. There would be additional families likely to take advantage of that if more dollars were available. Then the ed choice income-based program, not only is it limited by income, but it also has the limit of only expanding one grade at a time. Right now, it’s only students in K–5 that are eligible to apply for next year, so that is one of the things.

A couple of other things, nuances in Ohio that are a little different than other places that I think have limited the, made it more difficult for families to use it, is currently to receive a voucher in Ohio you need to first be admitted to a private school, and then the private schools submit your paperwork sort of behind the scenes to the state, and then the state approves it. We would really love to move to a system where a family would be able to basically apply for eligibility to the state and almost receive like a voucher in hand that they could then take to any private school that would then admit them. Because otherwise they’re going maybe through the application process at three, four, five schools, and they’re each sending in maybe their name if they’re unsure which school they want to attend, and it just creates a more laborious process.

We’d like to make sure families really understand and know they’re empowered and that they have the option to really go to whatever school that they want, that they’re admitted to. Increased voucher amounts, especially for high school. A lot of high schools can only take a certain number of students, most likely because our voucher amount is only $6,000 at the high school level in both of the ed choice programs and the Cleveland program. What that does, because high school tends to be more expensive providing education at that level, I mean many private schools have to do a lot of outside fundraising to be able to serve those students.

They will many times take students to fill up available seats sort of thinking of it like an airplane, you know when the flight is leaving at 9:00 a.m. and if there’s 10 empty seats there, they’re fine filling that at a cut rate, which in this case for the voucher is maybe $6,000 even if the cost of education is $10,000 because many of their fixed costs have been covered. It’s important for us going forward if we want, especially a supply side response and we want more private schools to be created and private schools to build new wings and expand, that we have voucher amounts that more closely approximate the cost of education.

Then the last thing I would say how our program can be improved is how scholarship amounts are applied. Right now, it’s not done like college financial aid is done. Private schools are forced, are being required to apply all discounts and even financial aid in some cases before the full scholarship amount can be applied. That creates a difficult scenario where if you have a low-income person who under the school’s policies would receive some sort of financial aid, somehow saying their scholarship amount shouldn’t be that amount, should be lowered as a result of that. I think that puts a strain on some private schools as well. Hopefully, some of these things will be corrected. We need to make sure that the program can stay vibrant and accessible to as many families as possible.

Jason Bedrick: Those are excellent points. I mean, I think it’s very important that policymakers, when they are crafting these programs, think through the implementation. You want to make it as easy as possible for parents and also for schools to participate, and as you mentioned, the supply side response is very important. If our theory of change is that expanding educational choice is going to create a diverse market with a wide variety of different options that parents can choose from, having a program that’s only filling empty seats in the existing private school sector is really not going to lead to those sorts of innovations that advocates of school choice are hoping to see. It is very important that policymakers crafting these programs get the design right.
My guest today has been Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Fordham Institute. Chad, thank you very much for joining us.

Chad Aldis: It’s been a pleasure, Jason. Thank you.

Jason Bedrick: Before we go, I just wanted to give a quick update about some of the exciting developments this past year in Ohio state legislature. The budget bill included a number of expansions for Ohio school voucher programs. For example, earlier in this podcast you heard Chad mention that in order to be eligible for the low-income ed choice scholarship, you had to be in grades K–5. The legislature has expanded that all the way through grade 12, so students K–12 are now eligible and they added about $50 million to support the expansion. Additionally, the number of scholarships, which right now is about 60,000, will increase each year by 5 percent if the number of applicants exceeds 90 percent of the total. This is what other states call an escalator or an inflator that allows the program to grow over time to meet demand. Another interesting thing that they did is they removed the requirement that schools administer standardized tests.

Another thing they did is that they allowed schools to administer alternative assessments approved by the Ohio Department of Education, so for example, a nationally norm reference test, instead of only mandating the state tests. This actually respects the autonomy of private schools while balancing it with the interest of accountability, making sure that parents have some benchmark by which to assess their children. Finally, there was an expansion of about $5.9 million to the Cleveland Scholarship Program.

Sum total, we’ve got a lot of expansions to the voucher programs in Ohio and also a rollback of some of the regulations. This is really good news this past year for the state of Ohio.
Thanks again for joining us for another edition of EdChoice Chats. Remember that you can subscribe on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher, and follow us on social media @edchoice. Don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thanks again for joining us.