Ep. 174: Ohio Voter Poll with Drew Catt and Yitz Frank

April 29, 2020

Drew Catt, director of state research at EdChoice, and  Yitz Frank, chairman of the board of School Choice Ohio, discuss the results from the Ohio K–12 & School Choice Survey.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice. And today, we’ll be discussing the results of our recent survey of Ohio families about their views on school choice in K-12 education. I’m joined today by one of the authors of the study, my colleague Drew Catt, who is the director of state research at EdChoice, and I’m also delighted to be joined by Yitz Frank, who is the chairman of the board of School Choice Ohio. Welcome to the podcast.

Drew Catt: Thanks for having us, Jason.

Yitz Frank: Thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick: Before we dive into the survey results, Yitz, perhaps you could provide some local context. Let’s start with what sort of school choice options do families in Ohio have already?

Yitz Frank: So, Ohio, I think for a long time, has been a leader on school choice issues in the country. We have five scholarship programs, the Cleveland Scholarship Program, which is really just focused on eligibility in Cleveland, and that was the subject of the famous Supreme Court case, the Zelma decision. We also have two special needs scholarship programs—one specific to students with autism and the other one for general special education students. And then there are two other choice programs. One is our failing schools model, which was really the subject of the controversy that you alluded to before, and then we also now for the first time this coming year, will have K-12 eligibility for an income-based scholarship program. So, lots in Ohio, but obviously there’s always room to improve and expand that for our families here.

Jason Bedrick: So, let’s get into that controversy. The main program, or the failing schools model program, is called the Educational Choice Scholarships, or EdChoice Scholarships, a similar name to our organization though no affiliation between our organization and the scholarships. It’s a point of a lot of confusion out there, but we don’t actually run that program or have anything to do with administering it or funding it. But with regard to the EdChoice scholarships, there was going to be a major change in the number of families that were eligible to participate in the program. What precipitated that change and sparked this controversy over the last several months?

Yitz Frank: So, our largest program, the EdChoice Scholarship Program, it was created, I think it was about 15 years ago now, by the General Assembly then and it was really led by current Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted, who was at the time the Speaker of the House. And it really focused on students that are assigned to public schools that were underachieving for a number of years in a row.

And so the idea was that if we have schools that need some serious improvement and we know that from state data, we really needed to be focused on making sure that the families assigned to those schools have other options. And the hope was two things. And I think the data does bear this out. One is we have a moral responsibility to those families to make sure that they have access to really good options, but the other side of it is that—and the data I think bears this out in a lot of different studies in Ohio and in other places—that when you introduce options, choice options to families, that actually drives via competitive effects, improvement in those impacted public schools.

S,o that’s how it was created. And I think what happened over time, you referenced the controversy. So, what started off as a relatively small program, but I think over time, and I think we’ve seen this, the NAEP results that unfortunately in many cases—without a deliberate plan of improvement—that over time, schools were just not improving. And so what started off as a relatively small number of public schools increased over a period of years to about 200 something. And then over a period of another three years, it went to about 500 public schools. And then what happened this past year is it actually went from 500 schools to about 1,227 schools, which is roughly a third of the public schools in the state.

And there were some schools that were added onto there that you could probably make the argument that those aren’t really under-performing schools and probably shouldn’t be on there. And then the controversy becomes where do you draw that line? And so that was what led us into the conversation of, well, is a failing schools model the best way to do this? If it is, at what level are we talking about? And in order to make sure that we still continue to have options available for families, do we need to then adjust our income-based program to capture more families and give them choices as well?

Jason Bedrick: I know there was a lot of discussion of moving from a failing schools model to an income-based model, and that’s been a move that we’ve seen across the country for obvious reasons. You could have a child who was assigned to a school that is performing very well on average, but the school is not serving that child’s needs very well. On the other hand, you might have a school that on average, has relatively low performance, but there may be certain children in that school that are actually thriving. And so it makes sense to move to a needs based model that empowers families who have lower income to choose school options that work for their particular child’s needs regardless of the performance of the school that just happens to be down the street. That was the direction things were going, but they didn’t quite make it there, did they Yitz?

Yitz Frank: No, they didn’t. And that was the direction they were going. The legislature tried multiple times to come to agreement about what that looks like. And I think we had gotten to the point where we were going to have a really good outcome there and then like every other state in the country, COVID-19 hit. And so I think there was a desire and really a need that we couldn’t make any major changes to this program or any programs for that matter, when there’s so much uncertainty in the air. And so what they basically did was in temporary law, we pretty much went to where the status quo was beforehand.

So, instead of having 1,227 schools on that list, it’s roughly about 500 of which it was in the year prior. No significant changes on the income-based side although in the state budget we were successful in encouraging the legislature to expand that eligibility for all students in kindergarten through 12th grade. So, it’s going to be more or less… However the program worked last year, it’s more or less going to continue to work like that. And then over the next short period of time, we’ll continue to have conversations with the legislature about if we’re going to make changes, what should they look like?

Jason Bedrick: All right. Now, Drew, this poll was conducted in February of this year, 2020, in the midst of all the controversy. The EdChoice and income-based scholarships were the subject of dozens of news stories, op-eds, pronouncements by various interest groups, politicians, etc. So, you might think that everybody in Ohio must have heard of the program by now, but that’s not quite what our survey found, is it?

Drew Catt: No, it is not. And depending on which of the two programs we’re talking about, there is a little bit of difference. So, when it came to just the traditional EdChoice Program, a statewide program that had been in law for the longest part of time, it was 40 percent of respondents. So, that’s two out of every five of the voters in Ohio that replied to the survey said they had never heard of the program. And that’s fascinating, especially when you consider that on our baseline, just general voucher program, overall, 17 percent said they hadn’t heard of voucher. So, that’s twice as many having heard of vouchers than had heard of Ohio’s largest voucher program. And then when it came to the income-based program specifically, it was a little less than a third of the respondents had never heard of the income-based aspect of the program.

Jason Bedrick: It’s still a significant number of Ohio voters who just aren’t aware that these programs even exist. Were there any subgroups that were more likely to be aware of the program’s existence?

Drew Catt: So, that one I didn’t dive into as much. I usually dive into more of who is more likely to say that they are unaware. So, with that one, the subgroup that had the highest proportion said they had never heard of Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program would have been seniors, baby boomers, low-income earners, females, small town and rural residents. And those were all 44-45 percent, and then Dayton residents at about 48 percent, and when we’re looking at just the former school parents, half of those had never heard of the program.

Jason Bedrick: But once voters did learn about the EdChoice and income-based scholarships, what was the level of support or opposition, and were there any particular subgroups that were more or less likely to be supportive?

Drew Catt: Yes, so like we’ve seen with a lot of our national state polls in the past, information is power. So, we see that once voters are given the description of the EdChoice Scholarship Program, the favorability increased by 31 points. So, from about 43 percent just based on name alone, saying that they favored the program to an after being provided with a definition, 74 percent. So, about three out of four voters said that they did support the program. And then when it came to the income-based program, there was a little less of an increase. It was 21 points, but it was still at the end of the day after being given a description of the program, 70 percent of voters. So, seven out of 10 saying that they were in favor of the program.

And then for the larger program it was the kind of the younger Ohioans overall, like Gen Z, Millennials, and then just those in the younger age groups that were in favor of the program. And then African-American Ohioans, 85 percent favored the EdChoice Scholarship Program. Then when we’re looking at just the income-based program, the percentages were very similar. Also looking at African-American voters in the state of Ohio having one of the largest percent favorability at 85 percent.

Jason Bedrick: Now, Yitz, is this match what you see anecdotally on the ground in Ohio? You’ve got about two-fifths of Ohioans. About 40 percent said that they’ve never heard of the program, but that when you ask people if they support it or not, you get a significant number that are in favor, particularly among younger or lower income and African-American families. Does that make sense to you?

Yitz Frank: Yeah, I think so. And I think we’ve seen that in other states. The reality is what American wouldn’t want a choice in something if it was offered to them? And especially if their circumstances are really skewed in a way that they really don’t have access be it the housing market or another vehicle to have those choices. And so I think that that’s something that’s not surprising obviously. The challenges to make sure that we communicate that to policymakers and elected officials, it’s something that’s very important for them to understand. And there are some really, while it might not be a majority of voters, but there certainly are some very motivated groups out there that oppose these types of programs. And so it’s always a challenge to communicate that, but the polls out don’t shock me.

I think it’s worth mentioning that this poll was done after months of negative press. And so very heartening to see that. It also dovetails nicely with a poll that was released a few weeks beforehand that the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus did in conjunction with The University of Akron polling where black voters are in a lot of different issues. One of them was education, and over 60 percent of those voters said that they believe that the state should be funding the students regardless of what school they want to attend—private, religious, public, charter. They didn’t care. And I think that’s the case for most voters once they understand how these programs are designed and how they really drive equity in a way that we would all demand for our own children.

Jason Bedrick: And Drew, I know that the poll actually goes one step further, not just asking, “Do you support this or oppose this,” but, “Why?” So, what do we know about why Ohio voters support or oppose school choice programs?

Drew Catt: So when we’re talking about the programs we’ve been talking about thus far, so the EdChoice Scholarship Program, when we asked those who said that they strongly or somewhat favor the program after being given the definition, more than half of those 735 voters, so 51 percnet, said access to a better academic environment. After that, their reasons for support were closer to 15 percent to 20 percent, was focus on more individual attention or more freedom and flexibility. And then on the flip side when we asked those who opposed the program why they opposed, so the 256 voters that said that they strongly or somewhat oppose and answered the question. A little more than half said that they believed that the program diverted funding away from public schools, which colleague Marty Lueken isn’t on this to talk about the fiscal effects of the program, but if you are interested, there are some numbers to actually put out what the fiscal effect on the state has been up with these programs.

Jason Bedrick: There is now, of course, the issue that voters are not particularly aware of the fiscal effects of the programs or even for that matter, how much is being spent in their public schools. What does the poll tell us about awareness among Buckeye State voters of how much is being spent at their local public schools?

Drew Catt: Yes, so this is really interesting. Ninety-five percent of the voters underestimated how much is being spent, and that’s looking at current spending. So, basically the money that actually ends up in the classroom, so to speak, or operational costs, with the median respondent estimating $3,500. The most recent spending statistic that we have in Ohio with federal dataset is $12,649. So, that means that half of the people who replied thought it was $3,500 or less, which is like just barely a quarter of what is actually spent.

And that’s just a little concerning, although we did ask a split sample experiment where we asked half of the voters if they thought funding was too high, too low or about right without giving them that number and then half of them, we gave them the little over $12,500 number and asked the same question, if the spending was too high to lower about right. And we saw that without information or without the number, about 13 percent said that it was too high and then when we gave the information, it was about triple, 39 percent saying that the amount that Ohio is spending in public schools is too high.

Jason Bedrick: So, in other words, if you had a politician who was campaigning on spending $5,000 per pupil at public schools, most voters would think, “Wow, he wants to really raise how much money we’re spending,” when in fact he’d be cutting the spending by more than half. That’s the situation among voters in Ohio, unfortunately. Where do Buckeye State families want to send their kids to school? I think that’s an important question for us to look at as well.

Drew Catt: Yes, this was another question that we like to do what we call a split sample experiment. So, we asked half of the respondents one version and the other half another. So, in the first version of the question we asked, if given the option, what type of school would you select in order to obtain the best education for your child? And then the other half had the added phrase and financial costs and transportation were of no concern. And we saw that there wasn’t that much of a difference. And without that added phrase, 54 percent said private school and then with the added phrase, 56 percent said private school. So, regardless, you’re getting more than half of the voters saying that they would prefer to send their child to a private school. And that’s compared to about the 11 percent that actually do send their child to a private school at the moment in Ohio.

Jason Bedrick: So, clearly, there’s a lot of room to grow. There are a ton of families out there who want to send their child to a private school, but either don’t have access to a voucher or maybe aren’t even aware that these voucher programs exist. Yitz, does that seem to be the sense that you’re getting on the ground when you talk to families in Ohio?

Yitz Frank: Yeah, I think that’s the case. Another thing that the poll points out, and I think this is really a heartening part of it is, I believe it is most, but certainly close to half of the respondents were people that were very satisfied with their own children’s public school experience. And like we know that most people like their local school. They like their private school, they like their locally assigned public school, and sometimes it’s because they were able to be involved in choosing that by purchasing a house in a certain school district or just because they’re happy with it.

And so, we know that there are some schools that we would consider to be really doing an objectively horrible job that are doing great for some students. And then we know some fantastic schools, whether they’re public or private, where just doesn’t really work well for a child. And so that information that people are looking for other choices, that doesn’t surprise me, but these are not by and large folks that have an ax to grind. They’re happy by and large with their current assigned school, but nevertheless, they clearly responded overwhelmingly supporting that policy option of allowing families to choose. And I think that’s like, to me, that was the strongest takeaway.

Jason Bedrick: Yitz, earlier you mentioned that you’re in continued discussions with policymakers about the direction that these programs might go. Has there been talk about expanding the program beyond just private school tuition but also to cover things as many education savings account programs do cover educational expenses like tutoring textbooks, homeschool curricula, online learning, educational therapy and the like?

Yitz Frank: Yeah, so we do have in Ohio. Our special needs scholarship programs are actually structured similar to how an ESA would be, but obviously limited to special education related services, but parents are actually able to mix and match and they could be using multiple different providers to get whatever service they think that that provider can offer the best. There have been conversations about ESA type of programs currently just because they’re so focused on who is eligible for these programs. There’s less discussion about, “Well, should we change the programs themselves or should we just focus on the eligibility?” But, yeah, I could certainly see some, maybe even a significant number of legislators that would be open to that idea, and it might be a great way depending on how it’s structured. It doesn’t necessarily have to be just for students or just nonpublic school. It’s theoretically something that we could look at statewide for every student. And I think it’s a conversation that we’ll continue to have.

Jason Bedrick: And of course forming that conversation should be the views of voters. So, Drew, what do we know about the voters support for education savings accounts?

Drew Catt: Yeah, after being given a definition of what the education savings account or ESA is, we saw that more than four out of five Ohio voters were in favor, so 82 percent. And the ones that were most in favor, I would say would probably be current school parents, those in the Columbus area, females, African-Americans, Millennials. And fascinatingly, once again, the information does make a huge difference because nearly half of the Ohio voters, or 46 percent, said they’d never heard of an ESA on the first question where we didn’t give them a definition.

Jason Bedrick: Well, definitely looks like a lot of room for Ohio to grow. You’ve got a lot of families who would like to be exercising school choice that don’t yet have the options. Ohio has long been a pioneer in school choice, but clearly there is a lot of support for continuing to blaze that trail.

This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast and follow us on social media, @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for emails on our website, edchoice.org. Drew and Yitz, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Yitz Frank: Thanks for having me.

Drew Catt: Yeah, it’s always a pleasure, Jason. Thank you.

Jason Bedrick: Thank you all for listening. We’ll catch you next time.