According to what is logical, what is constitutional, and what is moral, you would think members of Ohio’s legislature could come together to resolve Ohio’s voucher crisis and provide some relief for school districts going broke because that same legislature (in the final hours of the budget conference committee last summer) surreptitiously and explosively expanded EdChoice Vouchers paid for out of local school districts’ budgets. But you would be wrong, because in the Ohio Senate, ideology trumps logic, constitutional protection of school funding, and basic morality.
Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher program has created a crisis for Ohio school districts. Here’s why:
- EdChoice Vouchers are awarded to students in so-called “failing” schools. The school ratings are based on what everyone—Republican and Democratic legislators alike—agrees are flawed algorithms in the state report card. Schools are rated in six categories, and if a school scores D or F for two years running in any one of the categories, it becomes an EdChoice Designated School, where students can qualify for a voucher paid for by a local school district budget deduction. The number of EdChoice Designated public schools increased from 255 last school year (2018-2019) to 517 this year (2019-2020), and that number is due to explode to over 1,200 schools for next school year (2020-2021). Two-thirds of all the state’s school districts will have at least one EdChoice Designated school next school year.
- Each EdChoice voucher is based on a school district deduction—$4,650 for K-8 students and $6,000 for each high school student. A student is counted as enrolled in the local school district, and the district receives state basic aid for that student, but for many districts, the voucher extracts more than the state’s basic aid per-pupil. And in an added twist this school year, the state froze basic formula aid for all public schools at last year’s amount. There is no extra money coming into the school district to pay for any additional vouchers this school year.
- While previously a student had to have been enrolled in a public school in order to carry a voucher out of that school, in the state budget bill, the Legislature changed that requirement. This year, any high school student living in the zone of a Designated EdChoice high school qualifies for a voucher even if that student has never attended a public school in the district.
All this means that during this 2019-2020 school year, thousands of students previously enrolled in private and religious schools claimed a voucher, while their school districts received not a cent of extra money for those students from the state.
The Legislature reached a stalemate at the end of January and gave itself 60 days, until April 1, 2020, to reach a compromise. But the two sides—both with huge Republican majorities—are deeply divided.
The Ohio Senate supports a plan that prevents the number of Designated schools from rising to 1,200 and would, for three years, freeze the number of vouchers available while the Legislature reevaluates the state report cards on which voucher eligibility is determined. The Senate would maintain the school district deduction method of paying for the vouchers, leaving the responsibility on the backs of local school districts, which have already begun trying to pass additional property tax levies just to begin to cover the cost of vouchers for private school tuition. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver quotes one state senator who worries that having the state take over paying for the vouchers would be so expensive that the cost alone would curtail the size of the voucher program. Senators seem less worried about the burden of the school district deduction on local budgets. While school districts have asked for hold-harmless funding to help cover the unexpected expense during the current school year, no one has offered to provide assistance.
The Ohio House passed a very different plan, which was summarily rejected on February 12 by the Ohio Senate. The House plan would have phased out the current EdChoice Vouchers, ended the awarding of vouchers based on the state school district report card, phased out the school district deduction method of funding, and awarded all future vouchers under a new, fully state-funded, Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship program based on family income—at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Only students currently carrying an EdChoice Voucher (or their siblings) would continue to have their vouchers paid for by a school district deduction. The House plan, as proposed, did leave a significant burden on local school districts already losing a large amount of local school district funding to the EdChoice program.
After the Senate rejected the House plan, a Senate-House conference committee began meeting. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes “10 marathon hearings” in which “about 400 witnesses testified for a combined 49 hours of hearings that filled a Saturday morning, an entire President’s Day, and ran past 3 a.m. Wednesday night, and 2 a.m. the following night.” Public school personnel are demanding help, but so far are seeing no progress in the legislative negotiations.
The absence of logic, constitutionality, and morality in the Ohio Senate is astounding.
Researchers from Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, to Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz, to experts at the National Education Policy Center, to Ohio’s own Howard Fleeter, to the Plain Dealer‘s Rick Exner have documented again and again and again that standardized test scores, which are at the heart of Ohio’s state report card algorithms, correlate primarily with family and neighborhood income. Ohio’s state report cards are designed to punish the school districts across Ohio’s urban areas and rural Appalachia where poverty is concentrated. It is surely illogical for the Ohio Senate to insist on draining the local budgets of the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.
The Ohio Constitution provides that the state will provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools. There is no constitutional provision in Ohio for the funding of private and religious schools.
Finally, we are accustomed to hearing members of the Ohio Senate blame public school teachers when their students struggle. Ohio regularly awards “A” grades to wealthy, white outer ring suburban school districts, which lose very little from their school district budgets to EdChoice Vouchers. Legislators lavish praise on these “excellent” schools, where children living in cocoons of privilege and wealth benefit from lavish budgets based on local property tax wealth. One of the unmet mandates of the long and unresolved DeRolph litigation, however, is that the state is supposed to support equity by helping, rather than bankrupting, the school districts serving our state’s most vulnerable children.