When Governor Kasich signed the state budget last June, myriad education changes became law. One of the most talked-about was the extension of a policy known as “safe harbor.” This was instituted to protect students, teachers, and schools from sanctions brought about by the state accountability system during Ohio’s transition to a new and more rigorous state assessment (its third in three years). The provisions are relatively simple: Test scores from 2014–15, 2015–16, and 2016–17 cannot be used in student promotion or course credit decisions, nor can they be used for teacher evaluations or employment decisions. Schools aren’t assigned an overall grade during the safe harbor, and report cards can’t be considered when determining “sanctions or penalties” for schools.
One of the accountability measures impacted by safe harbor is the EdChoice Scholarship program. EdChoice, Ohio’s largest voucher program, affords students otherwise stuck in the state’s lowest-performing schools the opportunity to attend private schools at public expense. Safe harbor, however, mandates that schools on the EdChoice eligibility list as of 2014–15 remain on the list (even if they improve) and schools not on the list stay off (even if their performance declines). We immediately criticized this change, noting how frozen school eligibility wrongfully denies students the educational choices they deserve. We urged policymakers to clarify eligibility to ensure that students attending Ohio’s lowest-performing schools retained the opportunity to attend different ones.
Last month, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) released updated guidance on safe harbor. Buried in the clarifications was an attempt to clarify eligibility—but not in a good way: “Safe harbor means that no new public school buildings will be included on the program’s eligibility list until the 2019–2020 school year. However, public school buildings could be removed from the eligibility list as indicated in ORC 3310:03(B)(1). Results from the tests given in school years 2014–15, 2015–16, and 2016–17 will not be used to identify new public schools for eligibility.”
Translation? While school ratings on state report cards don’t get more schools added to the voucher eligibility list—no matter how dismal their sagging performance—schools whose performance improves can apparently be removed from the list. The mechanics of how this will be decided is murky, but the fact that ODE says it can happen is a problem; the original eligibility freeze had its flaws, but this new guideline is both bad for students and bad public policy. Safe harbor is premised on the legitimate theory that schools and educators need time to adapt to new state tests. But when implemented ODE’s way, it will block students stuck in a consistently low-performing school that wasn’t on the list in 2013–14 from obtaining a voucher until at least 2019–20. That’s six more years, or half of a student’s K-12 lifetime. Yet this new guidance uses the same “unfamiliar” assessment results as evidence that schools have improved—and thus can be removed from the eligibility list.
The end result is that adults involved in Ohio’s worst schools are held harmless, but the kids in those schools are left in an environment that doesn’t help them learn. This really needs to be fixed ASAP. Here are three possible solutions that policy makers could pursue:
Go back to the original safe harbor agreement
Despite its warts, the original agreement regarding vouchers and safe harbor—that the EdChoice list be frozen—is better for kids than what’s in ODE’s new guidelines. It would still prevent additional students from accessing vouchers, unfortunately. But at least it would not end access for currently eligible students based upon test results that critics contend aren’t reliable enough to show that a school is getting worse—but are just dandy for showing that it’s somehow gotten better.
Remove voucher eligibility from safe harbor provisions
A better option would be to remove voucher eligibility altogether from safe harbor provisions. This would ensure that students stuck in failing schools don’t lose out on educational choices just because of state-level policy changes. Critics will argue that exempting voucher eligibility from safe harbor provisions would defeat the intent of safe harbor, which is to protect schools and districts from sanctions and penalties during a time of transition. The problem with that argument is that vouchers aren’t primarily a sanction on schools. The EdChoice Scholarship is an opportunity extended to students when the local school lets them down. Applying safe harbor to EdChoice puts the interest of schools and districts above the interest of students—which is completely upside-down and wrong-headed.
Change voucher eligibility altogether
In light of the complexity that has always attended Ohio’s voucher programs for students in failing schools, maybe it’s time to move toward changing EdChoice into an income-based eligibility program. All but two states with vouchers based their programs on family income or children’s special needs rather than the achievement of the local public school. Income-based vouchers help the students most in need of options—not only those who are stuck in weak schools, but also those struggling in any school that doesn’t meet their needs. Poor families can seldom pay private school tuition or move to different neighborhoods. By ending the “failing schools” approach to voucher eligibility and transitioning to an income-based version instead, Ohio could extend educational opportunity to thousands more students, empower low-income families to make the best decisions for their children, remove the overtly negative “failing schools” nomenclature from regular use, and create a program that’s simpler to manage and not subject to constant fluctuations in academic standards, state tests, and state accountability systems.
It sounds like a major shift, but it would require only minor changes. The state could maintain the EdChoice Scholarship cap at sixty thousand seats; there’s plenty of capacity. For those fearful of a mass exodus from public schools to private schools, history has already shown that scenario to be highly unlikely. The existing income-based EdChoice program is already statewide in three grades and growing every year, and it hasn’t resulted in a massive outflow of students from public schools. Most states already focus on income-based vouchers. Maybe it’s time for Ohio to do the same.
While there are no simple answers, doing nothing is a heinous option. ODE’s current interpretation of the safe harbor language vis-à-vis EdChoice isn’t good for kids, and it ill serves a worthy program that has changed a lot of lives. Whether policy makers opt to freeze eligibility completely, divorce it from safe harbor, or transition to income-based vouchers exclusively, they must choose to do something. The right of thousands of students to exercise a choice that affluent families take for granted depends on it.
 For a public school to be added to the EdChoice eligibility list, a school must have poor state assessment results in two of the past three years. EdChoice also permits low-income students in grades K–3 (and an additional grade level each year) to access a voucher regardless of their assigned school. For more details on eligibility, see section 3310.03 of the Ohio Revised Code.