In the 2020-2021 biennial Ohio budget signed into law in July, lawmakers quietly embedded the radical expansion of school privatization. Rewards for charter schools and tuition voucher expansion are written into the budget in a lots of little ways, however, which means that, during the budget debate, few noticed the overall significance of exploding state support for school privatization. A new report released last week by Innovation Ohio, however, connects the dots among several measures which together will undermine oversight of charter schools and at the same time radically expand tuition vouchers. The report includes an examination of the fiscal implications for local public school districts.
The former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of Finance and now Innovation Ohio’s education policy fellow, Steve Dyer authored the report, which ought to be essential reading for legislators and a broad range of citizens—from experts to people who have not previously tracked the issue. Dyer writes a basic primer and at the same time an analysis sophisticated enough to teach experts something new.
Dyer begins: “When Governor Mike DeWine signed HB166 into law, he approved a budget that lawmakers had packed full of little-noticed gifts to those who seek to erode support for traditional public schools through a proliferation of charter and private school options funded at taxpayer expense.” Dyer explains that the new Ohio budget:
- weakens Ohio’s 2015 charter school oversight law that mandated automatic closure for academic failure after two years;
- weakens standards for Ohio’s already deplorable sector of “dropout recovery” charter schools;
- weakens Ohio’s oversight of its many charter school authorizers; and
- increases the transfer of state and even local taxpayer dollars to private—mostly religious—schools.
STATE BUDGET WEAKENS OVERSIGHT OF CHARTER SCHOOLS
Although in 2015, the state cracked down on academically failing charter schools by mandating their closure after two years of failing test scores, the new budget awards these schools an extra, third year to stay in business. The new budget gives 52 schools which had been preparing to close another year of life. Dyer adds: “Interestingly, of the 52 charters that were scheduled to be closed under the old standard, 34 are run by for-profit charter school operators, including almost 20 percent of the former White Hat schools now being operated by Ron Packard—the founder of K-12 Inc.—the nation’s largest (and most notorious) online charter school operator. Another big operator set to take a hit was J.C. Huizenga’s 10 Ohio-based National Heritage Academies. Six of those were on the chopping block before the legislature offered a legislative reprieve. Huizenga is an acolyte of Betsy DeVos—the controversial U.S. Secretary of Education—and his political connections have kept his schools afloat for years, despite complaints….”
The new state budget also weakens standards at a set of charter schools described by their promoters as providing opportunity for students who have dropped out of school. While the education of school dropouts is a worthy purpose, in Ohio, the state has been providing millions of dollars of support for schools that clearly fail to accomplish that stated goal: “Some graduate less than two percent of their students in four years and less than 10 percent in eight years. The state’s already lax standards only require that dropout recovery schools graduate eight percent of their students in four years.” Before they can graduate, students in these schools must pass a state-approved test, but the new budget permits these schools, “to adopt another, easier test, and reduces the passing score.” It is predicted that the change in standards will save some of these schools from mandatory closure.
Ohio is also known as a state with too many charter school authorizers—organizations all over the place—often sponsoring schools in places hundreds of miles away from the sponsor’s own location. Dyer explains how the new budget eases up oversight of the organizations that earn tax dollars for sponsoring and, supposedly, overseeing charter schools: “The Budget Bill orders the Ohio Department of Education to re-evaluate sponsors’ previous accountability ratings to take into account these new, weaker dropout recovery standards. As a result, these sponsors will get a do-over on their previously-failing oversight grades… Allowing sponsors to re-do their past evaluations greatly weakens the oversight the state can exert over the overseers, allowing for the possibility of more ECOT-like scandals to proliferate and rob Ohio taxpayers of resources that could be better spent in traditional public school buildings or higher-performing charter schools.”
NEW OHIO BUDGET SWELLS FUNDING FOR SCHOOL VOUCHERS
While Dyer devotes the first half of his report to charter schools, readers definitely need to keep reading, for Dyer’s strongest critique is of the “voucher explosion” in the state’s new budget bill: “Ten years from now, it’s not impossible to imagine that we’ll look back at HB166 as the ‘Voucher Bill,’ thanks to the massive expansion of vouchers the budget bill will infuse into the system.”
Ohio has five voucher programs. EdChoice Vouchers for students in so-called “failing” schools are funded through a school district deduction. EdChoice Expansion Vouchers for poor children are fully funded by the state. There are also Autism Vouchers and Peterson Special Education Vouchers. And finally there is the original Cleveland Voucher Program for students in that city school district. Dyer reports on the growth of state and local tax dollars flowing into all of these programs together: “What was once a single program in one city that cost taxpayers $2.9 million has become a more than $333.8 million annual venture, with 581 of the state’s 610 school districts losing at least one student to vouchers over the last 5 years.”
The new Ohio budget’s expansion of vouchers is largely in the EdChoice Expansion‘s state-funded vouchers: “This is thanks primarily to the bill’s $73.3 million annual expansion of the EdChoice Expansion program—an income-based voucher that any child who meets an income requirement can take to have taxpayers subsidize their private (and in most cases religious) education. In terms of scale, 10 years ago, all voucher deductions put together were only $56 million… (U)nder the expansion, families of four earning up to $103,000 now qualify for a nearly $3,000 taxpayer funded public subsidy to offset their private-school tuition. It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of Ohio households would qualify for at least half of the full voucher amount.”
In the new report, Dyer does not cover one additional way the new Ohio budget expands vouchers—this time in the EdChoice Voucher program. The change is already proving consequential for school districts, because EdChoice Vouchers are deducted from school districts’ budgets. In August, the Ohio Association of School Business Officials (OASBO) published an update on its website to inform school treasurers about what just happened. OASBO reports that although legislators have always said the purpose of vouchers is to provide an escape from so-called “failing’ schools, and although the law used to require that, to qualify for an EdChoice Voucher, students, except Kindergartners, must have been previously enrolled in a public school, the new Ohio budget provides that high school students are now exempt from that rule. 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.”
In his new report, Dyer calculates the very significant fiscal consequences for the state’s public schools when the loss of money from the various voucher programs is added together: Adding all the different Ohio school voucher programs together: “Between 2002 and today, the average per pupil voucher has grown from just over $1,300 to $6,512 per student, adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, the state’s per pupil public school investment has seriously lagged that of its private school counterparts, going up from $4,100 to $4,782 in inflation adjusted dollars during the same period… It is… troubling that the state has chosen to increase its investment of taxpayer money in private, mostly religious schools by 428% since 2002, while at the same time only delivering a 12% increase in state per pupil investment in public school districts.”
Dyer demonstrates the consequences for local school districts: “(A)s students depart public schools using vouchers, the school districts they leave behind see their state resources decline accordingly, forcing them to dig into local resources (or cut programming) to make up the difference.” The voucher program has taken so much money out of school district budgets that, to provide examples of the consequences of school voucher expansion, Dyer lists the millions of local dollars needed to fill in lost state revenue between 2014 and 2018 in each of the state’s top 20 losers to vouchers (in a table, on page 8). Here are the top three losers to vouchers in that list: the Columbus school district has had to replace $28,015,593 lost to vouchers; the Cincinnati school district has had to replace $20,314,389 lost to vouchers; and a smaller suburban district in greater Cleveland, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district, where many students use vouchers to pay tuition at religious schools, has had to replace $8,859,655 lost to vouchers.
Dyer concludes: “Given the state’s wholesale infusion of voucher money this budget cycle, it’s not impossible to envision a time when voucher funding may approach or even overtake charter school funding totals.” This is, of course, all at the expense of the state’s public education budget and the budgets of local public school districts.