The Plain Dealer‘s education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell recently published an important article piecing together a mass of the complicated reasons for this school year’s explosive growth in the number of Ohio students qualifying for private school tuition vouchers at public expense. Public school districts across Ohio are watching their budgets unexpectedly collapse as more and more students carry away state and local tax dollars in vouchers for religious education.
Before examining O’Donnell’s explication of the overly complicated—maybe intentionally convoluted—mechanics of the qualification process, however, one must start with what O’Donnell reports is Ohio State Senator Matt Huffman’s attitude toward public schools and public school teachers. O’Donnell quotes Huffman blaming public schools for failing to improve: “State Sen. Matt Huffman, one of the strongest supporters of vouchers in Ohio, said some of the rules are subtle and have changed a few times. But districts should have known, he said, and should be blaming themselves for not improving their schools.”
Huffman is a member of the Ohio Senate Education Committee. Back in September, when the latest Ohio school district report cards came out, this blog quoted other members of the Ohio Senate Education Committee who openly disdain public schoolteachers. One senator repeatedly asked: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?” Another mused, “I think its maybe the wrong people are running the show and we need to try something different.”
At the time, I wondered how these guys can go on clinging to the old idea that teachers can fix social inequality merely by working harder. Maybe they imagine that if we were merely to exchange the staffs of the richest and the poorest school districts in the state, the challenges for students in poor communities would magically disappear. The evidence that we should not blame schools and school districts has been growing for a long time. A huge body of academic research summarized in this blog in September tells us that economic segregation—where wealthy families are moving farther and farther into the exurbs—has been rapidly accelerating. Later in September in new research, Stanford University’s Sean Reardon confirmed the correlation between concentrated poverty and low standardized test scores. In the aggregate, standardized test scores correlate with family and neighborhood economics and are a poor measure of the quality of individual schools and school districts. Ohio’s state senators must imagine that public school educators can, on their own, swiftly erase the alarming and growing economic gap between children growing up in pockets of extreme privilege and children segregated in our most impoverished city neighborhoods or living in remote rural areas.
Besides reminding us once again that the Ohio Senate Education Committee blames school teachers, Patrick O’Donnell’s recent article clarifies some of the policy mechanics slipped into the state budget last June by these same legislators to produce this fall’s voucher explosion, which is causing a financial crisis in a number of the state’s public school districts. While Ohio has four statewide voucher programs, the expansion of one program, EdChoice Vouchers, is the cause of Ohio’s current funding crisis for many public school districts. EdChoice vouchers were created in 2005, “for students attending ‘underperforming’ schools or who would be assigned to them. EdChoice has a student’s home district pay $4,650 toward tuition for kindergarten through eighth grade and $6,000 for private high schools.”
The current crisis has arisen because the state keeps on designating more and more public schools as “underperforming”: “Changes to state law have more than tripled the number of districts declared part of the voucher program, from 40 in 2018-19 to 139 this school year. Next year, the program… will grow further, to more than 400 districts, which represents more than two-thirds of the districts in the state.”
And all of a sudden lots more students in each district can qualify for a voucher. In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district, 500 additional students took a voucher this year out of the district’s coffers. The superintendent in the Shaker Heights district testified to the State School Board: “There are school districts that are now expecting to lose millions of dollars in the course of one year as a result of the EdChoice voucher expansion… These are losses for which districts were unable to forecast or prepare.”
O’Donnell identifies three reasons school districts are experiencing massive financial losses beginning in this school year due to changes in the voucher program:
- It used to be that students were required to attend a so called “underperforming” public school before qualifying for an EdChoice voucher to “escape” that school. But a provision was slipped into into the new budget to allow any high school student living in the attendance zone of one of the state’s EdChoice-designated high schools to qualify for a voucher, even if that student has never attended the public school from which the student is said to be escaping (and even if the student has never before attended any public school). O’Donnell quotes Cleveland Heights-University Heights treasurer Scott Gainer: “We just lost an additional $2.1 million for high school vouchers that we never anticipated…. We have students who weren’t coming here and were never going to come here taking dollars… Because they were always at private schools, they were never part of planning, but are now a cost the district faces.”
- For this school year, the state froze state aid to school districts at last year’s level: “The state froze aid to every district… in the state budget, so added voucher costs just bite further into (local school district) budgets.”
- Finally, the state’s formula for identifying a school where students qualify for vouchers is murky, convoluted and unfair. O’Donnell quotes State Senator Peggy Lehner, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, confessing at a State Board of Education hearing that she herself can’t understand the methodology: “I’m still trying to find out what we’re fixing.”
What are the problems Senator Lehner can’t understand? O’Donnell explains, but, unfortunately after you read this, you will be as perplexed as Senator Lehner is. “Schools are declared ‘underperforming’ using report card grades in several measures like performance, value-added, graduation rate, and improving at-risk K-3 readers. Each measure has different grades that trigger EdChoice designation, many of which involve poor grades on two out of the last three report cards.” But: “Because the state changed its tests and report cards a few years ago the legislature declared a ‘safe harbor’ that blocked report cards in 2015, 2016, and 2017 from being used. But when report card grades in 2018 started counting toward EdChoice designations, the ‘two out of three’ criteria reached back before safe harbor and counted previous grades from 2013 and 2014.” High schools whose graduation rates, for example, have improved considerably during 2015, 2016, and 2017 continue to be penalized for graduation rates from 2013-2014. And once a student secures an EdChoice voucher, the school district must continue to provide the voucher every year until that student graduates from high school.
Senator Matt Huffman told O’Donnell that one reason he is such a devoted supporter of vouchers is that many private schools spend less per pupil than public school districts spend once state and local dollars are combined. A high school EdChoice voucher costs the school district $6,000. Huffman explained: “The $6,000 is a better deal to the taxpayers than $12,000.” What Huffman ignores is that the vast majority of the students taking a voucher never intended to enroll in the public schools; their parents have chosen religious education. Now, however, Ohio’s public school districts are being required by the state to absorb the full cost of educating a whole group of additional students whose families always intended to enroll their children in private schools.
Innovation Ohio’s Steve Dyer castigates Senator Matt Huffman for his blatant aversion to public education: “State Sen. Matt Huffman, one of the strongest supporters of vouchers in Ohio, said some of the rules are subtle and have changed a few times. But districts should have known, he said, and should be blaming themselves for not improving their schools… Over the last decade, the state report cards upon which these new voucher building designations are being based have been deliberately and artificially deflated for the state’s school districts. And I’m increasingly convinced it was for this sole purpose: to ensure more districts and buildings are deemed ‘failing’ by the state so more public money can be poured into private, mostly religious schools… And once the building is eligible for vouchers, every student who gets a voucher gets to keep it forever, even if the public building becomes the highest-performing in the state.”
How Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher program works is totally garbled, but one thing is very clear. Without increasing funding for public schools at all this year, the state legislature has burdened Ohio’s public school districts with an enormous unfunded mandate. School districts must underwrite vouchers for an exploding number of students using private schools with dollars desperately needed in the state’s public schools for the students the state constitution requires public schools to serve.