For years, school choice seemed stalled on a freeway at the edge of town. Urban voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee were successful. But only the involvement of middle-class suburbs will trigger the market revolution that reformers seek, and the suburbs presented an unassailable front. Statewide ballot measures in favor of vouchers lost big in California and Michigan in 2000. Proposals to expand education tax credits in Minnesota and Arizona died, and Ohio's permanent "pilot" program remained strictly limited to the City of Cleveland.
The cause seemed hopeless. Suburbanites found school choice -- like many city customs -- appealing from a distance. But when it came to suburban schools, they loathed straying from tradition. For decades the minivan set heard sky-is-falling predictions that choice would destroy public schools and undermine social stability. Suburban schools may not be perfect, commuters grumbled, but they aren't bad enough to risk change.
This year school choice got a jumpstart. With Ohio leading the way, reformers are finally taking choice to the suburbs. Governor Bob Taft signed a budget this summer authorizing 14,000 new school vouchers. This more than triples the size of Ohio's voucher student cadre, currently 5,675 Clevelanders in grades K-10. But numbers don't capture the importance of the Ohio legislation. The new program matters because it takes choice statewide.
Taft's predecessor George Voinovich favored universal school choice a decade ago. As governor, he created a Commission on Educational Choice that produced two far-reaching proposals for the Buckeye State. One plan would have provided vouchers to students in Ohio's 12 largest school districts. The other would have made choice universal in Ohio one grade at a time, beginning with the state's littlest mall rats.
Voinovich expected resistance from teachers' unions but was blindsided by complaints from conservative suburban school boards and PTA members. Even some members of Voinovich's staff were suburban skeptics. "Once you let that genie out of the bottle, they will not be able to put it back in, and they know that," a Republican lawmaker told reporters.
Ohio thus crafted a compromise limiting vouchers to students in Cleveland. The Cleveland Scholarship Program has since allowed a few thousand urbanites to flee dysfunctional campuses for alternative venues. A clause would have compensated neighboring districts for accepting voucher students, but not a single suburb participated.
OHIO'S RELUCTANT REPUBLICANS are not unique. It was doubtful commuters who nixed the California and Michigan initiatives. Those measures sank by margins of more than 2 to 1 in 2000, with non-city dwellers voting "no" more often than others.The anti-voucher Americans for Religious Liberty wrote about the California race, "even rural, white 'interior California' counties opposed the initiative." In fact, such voters were especially likely to oppose school choice. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that disproportionately urban Latinos were about 50 percent more likely to support the voucher measure than whites.
Suburban and rural voters have more to lose and less to gain from change. That is why choice flowered first in the nation's most dangerous and ineffectual urban districts where politicians decided it was a politically safe solution. Cleveland schools were in total collapse in 1995, when the city's program began. Only 7 percent of Cleveland high school students graduated on time with 12th grade skills, and a somewhat larger number were victims of on-campus crime.
The limited Cleveland program passed on a strict party line vote because Voinovich placated GOP lawmakers not ready for change in their own outlying neighborhoods. By contrast, "lawmakers had such little hope that anything could fix the Cleveland schools, they were willing to take the risk," Commissioner David Brennan explained.
Cleveland's choice law has become more popular as city schools have slowly improved. It now has more friends than enemies. Ohio's new budget enlarges the Cleveland scholarships and makes them available to students in grades 10-12 for the first time.
But Ohio's bellwether accomplishment is the new Educational Choice Scholarship Program. It offers vouchers to 14,000 children in schools on "academic watch" or in "academic emergency" for three years anywhere in the state. Ohio is not the first to pass a statewide choice program, but Florida's older Opportunity Scholarship Program serves only 753 students and is dogged by court challenges. The ECSP will be the largest program of its kind, and prior litigation should insulate it from legal challenge.
THOUSANDS OF SUBURBAN OHIOANS will choose their schools this fall, and they have reason to welcome the opportunity. A list of the state's struggling schools belies the myth that only urban schools fail. According to the Ohio Department of Education, 60 of its 88 counties have at least one school in "academic emergency."
McKinley Elementary in Middletown, Ohio is one such underperformer. In fact, Middletown -- an enclave of 55,000 souls 30 miles from Cincinnati -- has three schools in academic emergency. No urban ghetto or hipster enclave, its Ramada Inn boasts the "world's largest re-circulating swimming pool." Admiral King High School in Lorain County, 35 miles outside of Cleveland, is likewise on the list. "We are providing options that prevent Ohio's school children, regardless of where they live, from becoming trapped in failing schools," explained Ohio House Speaker Jon Husted.
Families within shouting distance of growing crops or big box retail may be late adopters, but school choice is no longer nouveaux. Urban programs have shown that choice increases parent satisfaction even as it improves the quality of public schools exposed to competition. As existing programs mature, families are increasingly comfortable with the idea of choice.
Universities and think tanks report academic results ranging from no change to improved test scores, both for voucher students and for their public school peers in Milwaukee and Cleveland. "It doesn't make sense to me to call these mixed results," said the Manhattan Institute's Jay Greene. "If study findings range from zero to positive, that's positive." No academic study has found that choice programs harm student performance.
Ohio will offer vouchers only to students in schools experiencing academic difficulty, but that difficulty may not be the kind of total organizational meltdown that parents imagine when they hear words like "academic emergency." Some students at orderly but mediocre schools will qualify even if they personally are doing well. Ohioans should find that options benefit such students. Choice is more than an emergency escape hatch.
School choice has upside potential because different children learn differently. Students who are learning adequately in one school may find that elsewhere they can become outstanding. An Indiana University evaluation of the Cleveland program found that "no particular school or school type is likely to meet the expectations or needs of all families." The Ohio expansion will allow "parents and students to have a more active role in selecting the school that is best suited for the individual needs of the child," Husted emphasizes.
That a child's individual needs, rather than geography, should determine the school that she attends was a novel idea in the wake of decades of public school assignment, and it has taken hold slowly. But as urban voucher programs diversify educational options while revitalizing public schools, parents elsewhere are rethinking the opportunity to choose.
Columbus, Ohio native Jack Nicklaus explained his perennial success on the golf course by saying, "I resolve never to quit, never to give up, no matter what the situation." School choice supporters spent many years starting small, and their persistence is paying dividends. Success in Ohio's suburbs and rural counties will signal that diversity in schooling has become a mainstream value. That would be a boon to the choice movement. After all, Nicklaus also said, "Golf is a better game played downhill."