Problems Erupt in Cleveland

Concerns over safety hazards, unlicensed teachers, and reliance on video for instruction.

By Erik Gunn

In Cleveland, OH, a federal judge’s decision first to throw out a voucher program that includes religious schools, then to permit students already enrolled in the four-year-old program to continue attending private schools for at least the first semester this year, sparked national attention and comment.

Less widely publicized have been a series of findings – reported initially in The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper – exposing conditions so poor in some voucher schools that the Ohio Department of Education stepped in to rectify them.

One school taught almost exclusively with videos produced by a private Christian school in Florida. At another, the newspaper found safety hazards in the building and in the children’s play areas, and mostly unlicensed teachers, one of them a convicted murderer.

State officials found that Golden Christian Academy relied on videos produced by Pensacola Christian Academy in Florida to teach its students, with parent tutors and workbooks supplementing the video instruction. State officials said the reliance on video instruction fell short of the minimum state academic standards required of voucher schools under the Ohio law establishing the Cleveland program.

Another school, Islamic Academy School of Arts and Sciences, was housed in a former 110-year-old city elementary school building that had been closed because of its poor condition. Hazards included broken windows, peeling lead paint in school hallways, and discarded junk including nail-studded boards. The school also employed a number of unlicensed teachers and had knowingly hired a convicted murderer.

The academy received at least $268,000 in voucher money, the Plain Dealer reported, but gave no state proficiency exams.

Cleveland’s voucher program was begun in 1995 and has from its inception included religious and secular schools. During the 1998-99 school year the program enrolled 3,674 children from K-5 in 59 private schools, each child receiving up to $2,250 in tuition subsidies.

Unlike Milwaukee’s voucher program, the Cleveland voucher experiment requires participating schools to obtain a state charter, which in turn requires them to hire licensed teachers and give students proficiency exams. The schools are also required to conduct background checks for employees.

Five of the Cleveland private schools had no charters, however, including the Islamic Academy. The Plain Dealer reported that through a loophole in the voucher law, the former state superintendent of schools permitted schools that had not completed the chartering process to operate provisionally, qualifying collectively for $1 million in tuition vouchers.

State officials subsequently moved to cancel the participation of the Golden Christian and Islamic academies from the voucher program, along with a third school.

The Cleveland findings only further underscore the absence of oversight in Milwaukee’s voucher program.

Like Cleveland, Milwaukee requires participating voucher schools to meet minimal health and safety standards. But Milwaukee’s oversight pretty much stops there. Under the legislation setting up the Milwaukee voucher program, the state has no authority to correct problems such as unlicensed teachers or a curriculum that relies on videos.