Ohio has five voucher programs. Two of them are for students with autism and other disabilities, and their enrollment depends on the incidence of these conditions and parents’ awareness of the availability of voucher funds to pay for private programs. A third voucher program—the Cleveland Scholarship Program—one of the oldest in the country—is for students in Cleveland.
This blog post will focus on the last two—EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion. They are statewide Ohio school voucher programs designed specifically, according to the Republican lawmakers who have designed and promoted these programs, to enable students to escape so-called “failing” schools. It is important to remember that those same legislators have failed adequately to fund the public schools in Ohio’s poorest school districts, and those same legislators have looked at state takeover as another “solution” (besides expanding vouchers and charter schools) for the students in those districts. Ohio education policy for school districts serving very poor children is defined by punishment, not support.
EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers rob the public schools of essential dollars needed to educate the majority of Ohio’s students who remain in public schools. And the vouchers are used primarily by students enrolled in religious schools. Through EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion vouchers, the state is sending millions of tax dollars out of the state’s public education budget and out of the coffers of local school districts to fund the religious education of students who would likely never have enrolled in public schools in the first place.
The problem just got worse this summer when the Ohio Legislature passed a two year budget which radically expands both programs. The Ohio Association of School Business Officials (OASBO) recently published an update on its website to inform school treasurers about what just happened. OASBO reports: “HB 166 (the new state budget) expanded the EdChoice Scholarship program in multiple ways.”
Changes in the EdChoice voucher program: Although legislators have always said the purpose of vouchers is to provide an “escape” from so-called failing schools, the new budget provides that high school students are no longer required to have been previously enrolled in a public school to qualify for the voucher. OASBO explains: “Generally, students wishing to claim a voucher under the original EdChoice voucher program must have attended a public school in the previous school year. However, HB 166 codifies in law… (that) students going into grades 9-12 need not first attend a public school. In other words, high school students already attending a private school can obtain a voucher.”
To qualify for an EdChoice voucher, students must reside in the zone of a so-called “failing” school. The passage of the new budget this summer coincides with a recalculation last winter of the number of qualifying schools. Last January, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported that in the 2018-19 school year, 218 schools had been identified where students would qualify for the voucher. O’Donnell explains that beginning in September of 2019, “that list of ineffective schools balloons to more than 475.” Here is the Ohio Department of Education’s list of the schools which now qualify.
Why will these recent changes—increasing the number of high school students who will qualify and raising the number of schools which will qualify—have such a devastating fiscal effect on Ohio’s public schools? The simple answer is that the EdChoice voucher program is funded through a school district deduction. A couple of years ago, Policy Matters Ohio published that in 2019, the state foundation basic aid reimbursement to school districts would be $6,020 per pupil. This is the state’s basic per-pupil reimbursement state aid amount—the state’s supposed contribution to every school district for every student enrolled. There is a caveat, however. Policy Matters explains: “Policymakers increased the formula’s base per-pupil payment amount from $6,000 to $6,010 in 2018 and $6,020 in 2019, but for most districts, that increase was offset by other changes, including changes to the cap, which limits growth in state funding for fast-growing district, and changes to the guarantee, which slows loss for districts that are losing students.” When a new funding formula, known as the Cupp-Patterson Plan, was proposed for discussion last spring, its promoters explained that due to the state’s gross underfunding of education, 503 of the state’s 610 districts do not currently collect the full formula amount per pupil. (See slide #22)
According to the Ohio Department of Education, every high school student taking an EdChoice voucher to a private school carries away $6,000 from the student’s home school district. Here is how the school district voucher deduction works for high school students: a student set to receive a voucher is counted in the student’s home district’s Average Daily Membership figures and the home school district is said to receive $6,020 for that student. When the high school student now secures the voucher to pay private school tuition, the student’s school district loses $6,000. But, because of caps and guarantees and other calculations in the formula, the school district is unlikely to be receiving anywhere near the promised $6,020. The public school district will lose more state dollars in the voucher deduction than it is receiving for that student in formula basic aid from the state of Ohio.
Additionally, the Legislature found another way to expand the EdChoice vouchers in the new Ohio budget bill. OASBO reports, “HB 166… requires ODE (the Ohio Department of Education) to increase the cap on the number of EdChoice vouchers available (increase the cap by 5 percent each time 90 percent of available vouchers are claimed).” Until now the Ohio Department of Education had capped the number of EdChoice vouchers at 60,000, which limits the financial loss to school districts through the school district voucher deduction statewide. But apparently the legislators who passed the budget are now more worried about protecting the right of an increasing number of students to get the vouchers than in protecting the fiscal viability of the state’s 610 school districts.
Changes in the EdChoice Expansion voucher program: EdChoice Expansion differs from the original statewide EdChoice vouchers in two significant ways. First, it is a statewide program for students across all of the state’s school districts, with eligibility based on family income. Second, it is funded by the state as a separate budget line item. The state does not count EdChoice Expansion voucher students as part of the Average Daily Membership in the school district where the voucher student resides. That school district does not collect state aid for that student, but neither does the state deduct money from that school district’s budget when the student gets the voucher. The voucher comes straight from the state. OASBO reports that since the state established the program in 2013, it has been expanding eligibility every year by adding one grade at a time: “In FY 2019, students in grades K through 5 were eligible.”
However, the new FY 2020-2021 state budget makes all Ohio students in grades K-12 whose family income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level eligible for the state-funded EdChoice Expansion vouchers. Originally the number of EdChoice Expansion vouchers was capped at 2,000; but in this budget, EdChoice Expansion vouchers are folded with EdChoice vouchers under the new 60,000 voucher cap, which can grow by 5 percent each time 90 percent of available vouchers are claimed.
In the new Ohio state budget budget for FY 2020-2021, legislators created a bonanza expansion of vouchers for private and religious schools. It will come at the expense of the state’s public schools.