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Study Finds School Vouchers Decrease Racial Segregation in Ohio Classrooms

As state authorities debate whether to make private school choice universal, critics are trying to dramatically limit them through the courts

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

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Home to a sizable charter school sector and a host of private academies, Ohio is one of the friendliest environments for school choice anywhere in the country.

Now, as courts and politicians decide the future of the state’s school voucher program, a study released in December indicates that private school choice hasn’t had the damaging impact that many of its detractors claim. In fact, its author argues, racial segregation of students tended to decline in school districts where more students were eligible to receive vouchers from the state. 

The report was commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a reform-friendly think tank with a special focus on research and advocacy in Ohio. Its arrival could help shape the debate over the effects of school vouchers and the course that the state’s ambitious choice agenda will take in 2023, though voucher critics may contest its findings on school funding.

Alleging that the public funding of private schools is unconstitutional, and that the current system “discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools,” a coalition of school districts sued the state last year. A Columbus judge rejected an effort by the government to dismiss the case just a few weeks after the Fordham report was issued. At the same time, Republican lawmakers have revived an effort to massively expand the voucher program, known locally as EdChoice, to all of Ohio’s K–12 students after a similar move stalled in December. 

Roughly 60,000 kids statewide receive EdChoice scholarships ($7,500 for high schoolers, $5,500 for younger children) to defray tuition costs at private schools, including religious institutions. That number has increased dramatically over the last decade, leading supporters of public schools to complain that their enrollment, finances, and academic offerings have been harmed by the rapid movement of families and funding from districts.

Stéphane Lavertu

But study author Stéphane Lavertu, a political scientist at Ohio State University, argued that his research didn’t support those claims. The report shows that vouchers’ effects on student achievement and per-pupil funding in public schools are ambiguous, but not obviously negative — and far from increasing racial segregation in affected schools, he argued, EdChoice seems to actively decrease it.

“What we can say with some level of certainty is that segregation did not go up in district schools,” Lavertu said. “In fact, we can say with some confidence that it went down. That’s the only finding where I would say that there’s a clear direction, and it’s down.”

Lavertu examined school- and district-level figures for 47 Ohio districts where students in at least one school were entitled to scholarships between the 2006–07 and 2018–19 academic years. While eligibility was eventually expanded to students from comparatively low-income families, the study focuses almost exclusively on the original eligibility threshold, which hinged on students attending a school designated by the state as underperforming. 

The availability of vouchers clearly impacted student headcounts: On average, a district with at least one EdChoice-eligible school experienced a decline of between 10 and 15 percent of its students over a little more than a decade. 

But those exits were disproportionately driven by non-white students, Lavertu found. Data from the Ohio Department of Education revealed that 56 percent of participants in EdChoice during the period under study were African American, Hispanic, American Indian, or Alaskan Native. Consequently, the average district that was exposed to EdChoice saw a 13 percent decline in its percentage of minority students; those departing students left for private schools with higher concentrations of white and Asian students, while the district schools they left became less racially isolated (falling from roughly 57 percent minority-enrolled to roughly 50 percent). 

Happily, academic outcomes also improved somewhat. Using Ohio’s “district performance index,” a composite measure that includes the proficiency levels of students in all tested subjects and grades, Lavertu found that achievement climbed in the typical district with EdChoice-eligible schools. Those gains were reached from a startlingly low baseline, with average academic performance rising from the second percentile statewide (roughly the twelfth-lowest-performing district in Ohio) to the sixth percentile (roughly the 37th-lowest-performing district). 

Those findings were far less definitive than those for segregation, the study notes, because it can’t be known why the index ticked upward. The impetus might be improved teaching in public schools as a product of private school competition, but it could also stem from relatively lower-performing students being more likely to receive vouchers, changing the composition of the existing school system.

While the academic results were “very noisy,” Lavertu said, the results make it hard to claim that the remaining public school students are worse-off academically than they would have been if vouchers didn’t exist.

Funding questions

The study’s most disputed assertions relate to the financial consequences of EdChoice, which are central to the arguments of its opponents. 

Because voucher funding originates with the state, school districts only lose that portion of K–12 revenue when their students leave for private schools (according to a Fordham brief, 42 percent of Ohio’s total K–12 spending came from the state in Fiscal Year 2020, though the percentage allocated from Columbus to each district is determined through a complex formula). Local dollars, which are principally collected through property taxes, are not affected.

Once some families use their vouchers, that money is also spread over fewer public school students. In fact, per-pupil expenditures rose by 1.39 percent in districts exposed to EdChoice; operating expenditures (i.e., those unrelated to capital spending on things like land, buildings, and equipment) rose by 4.55 percent per-pupil. While those results aren’t big enough to be considered statistically significant, Lavertu argues in the study, they can effectively rule out the notion that tax-funded scholarships lead to declining spending on public school students.

Even if those calculations are accurate, however, voucher critics say that they ignore a disquieting reality: Some localities find themselves needing to raise their own property taxes in order to cover costs when students and state funding are gone. Their efforts to do so often fall short — the people of Parma, the state’s seventh-largest city, voted down 18 of the last 21 levies that were brought to the ballot — and even when they succeed, cash-strapped towns and cities are left reaching deeper into their own pockets to fund essential services.

Thomas Sutton, a professor of political science at the private Baldwin Wallace University, pointed to the explosion of voucher use that has occurred since 2019, when the Ohio legislature lifted income thresholds for families to become eligible. Some districts have been left asking their residents to pay more for the same schools, often while attempting to cut costs by closing or consolidating buildings that cost the same to maintain no matter how many students are enrolled. 

“The amount of money those districts are using per-pupil hasn’t declined precipitously,” Sutton said. “But the reason it hasn’t declined is because they’ve had to make it up through local taxation, not because there’s been no impact on the local district.” Meanwhile, state spending on private schools has skyrocketed.

Innovation Ohio

Lavertu acknowledged that the immediate effects of losing students to programs like EdChoice could be “difficult to deal with.” But he added that the influence of school choice could still be neutral, or even beneficial, over time — particularly when combined with necessary reforms to adjust for shrinking enrollment.

“When you’re losing students and losing revenue, but those fixed costs are there, you’ve got to make some really hard choices going forward. In the short term, that can be really, really painful,” he observed. “What I’d say with the funding is that, in the long run, it doesn’t appear to have a negative financial impact.”

Matthew Chingos

The fiscal challenges facing Ohio’s schools could grow even more tangled with the implementation of HB 126, legislation that limits public challenges of property tax valuations. In recent decades, school districts have clawed back significant amounts of annual revenue by appealing to county boards when they believed that nearby properties — the vast majority of them commercial developments — were undervalued. Under the new law, the avenues to such challenges are sharply curtailed. Local authorities have also struggled to keep on top of loopholes that allow millions of dollars of tax revenue to go uncollected.

Matthew Chingos, vice president for education data and policy for the Urban Institute, has conducted several reviews of the effects of private school choice on phenomena such as segregation. Much of the existing research, he noted, looked at small-bore programs that were intended only for poor children or those with disabilities. But with more and more states attempting to rapidly scale their voucher initiatives — Ohio could be next if Republican lawmakers are successful — there could be a need for “a new generation of evidence” to shed light on how a more muscular approach to choice helps or hurts traditional public school systems.

“[Scaling up] increases the potential for these programs to make a difference for the better, but it also raises the risk that, if they have negative effects, they’ll be more widely felt,” Chingos said.

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