Does EdChoice promote accessibility or segregation — or both?
By Clovis Westlund
In February 2020, when I was a student at Shaker Heights High School, I traveled to the Ohio Statehouse with a group of Shaker Heights families and school administrators.
We testified before a House committee in support of what we believed was fair funding for public schools.
At the time, I supported the abolition of the EdChoice voucher program. EdChoice is a state-sponsored scholarship program that gives families the opportunity to choose a different school for their child if their assigned public school is deemed failing. Families get a state voucher to pay for the new school, often a private one.
When the state of Ohio expanded the voucher program, it decided that Shaker Heights public schools were failing their students and reduced the schools' state funding.
In my testimony, I recounted my experiences engaging local elementary students in science experiments. I witnessed the curiosity and intelligence that my public school district instilled in its young students. I told legislators I didn't think labeling those students or schools as "failing" was valid in any way.
But I realize now that school choice is a much more complex issue than I thought. I committed myself to unlearning my assumptions about EdChoice so I could create a more informed opinion of Ohio's school choice policy.
A matter of accessibility?
The first person I talked to was Larry Keough, the associate director of education at the Catholic Conference of Ohio. Keough is a registered lobbyist who advocates for Catholic schools and their students across Ohio's six dioceses.
"Let's remember this," Keough said. "The citizens in Ohio, the moms and dads who work — they're taxpayers."
Keough made the case that EdChoice vouchers can be a tool to make private education accessible for families, no matter their socioeconomic status.
"Say, hypothetically, you have a mom and a dad both working, maybe they're even moonlighting," Keough said. "We want those families to be able to benefit from their hard-earned tax dollars, and that's really why school choice is so important. Affluent families have always had those choices. Kids from poor families have not."
The impact of segregation
But I knew there was more to this issue. At the Ohio Statehouse, I heard countless testimonials about how EdChoice has done damage to local communities. To learn more, I reached out to Scott DiMauro, a former classroom teacher and the current president of the Ohio Education Association.
"[EdChoice] has had more and more of an impact over time, and I think it's had a real detrimental impact overall in terms of depriving resources for the 90% of kids in the state who attend public schools in order to subsidize the personal choices of people that want to send their kids to private schools," DiMauro said.
When asked for a specific example of how these vouchers affect Ohio public schools, DiMauro pointed to Cleveland Heights and University Heights, two suburbs adjacent to Shaker Heights. They share the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district.
"Here's a community that is very integrated: About half the population is white, about half the population is Black or brown," DiMauro said. "Yet the Cleveland Heights public schools are predominantly Black and brown kids, and the kids that are taking advance vouchers to go to private schools — Jewish or Catholic schools in most cases — are overwhelmingly white. So it's also had an impact in terms of exacerbating racial segregation."
The segregation of schools is shown to create extreme inequities. On average, African-American students in Cleveland perform below almost all white students and two-thirds of students of color nationwide.
The EdChoice program is a central point of debate among Ohio educational leaders, and this can help us gain insight into the national discourse around school choice.
Over the past few months, I've begun to understand the connection between policy and the individuals and communities around me, and I will continue to do so as I study education policy in the future.
"+Voices" shares stories from LGBTQ+ young people, in partnership with the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. It's part of Ideastream Public Media's "Sound of Us" initiative to empower Northeast Ohioans to tell their own stories, facilitated and co-produced by Ideastream Public Media's Justin Glanville.