Both chambers of the Ohio Legislature came into session on Wednesday to pass an omnibus “coronavirus” bill, which sets the date of the now delayed primary election, waives mandated standardized testing in schools that have been closed during the pandemic emergency, and allows seniors to graduate from high school as long as they were on track to graduate before their school was closed.
The bill also freezes the threatened April 1, 2020, expansion of the number of Ohio’s public school buildings where students can qualify for an EdChoice voucher. The Statehouse News Bureau‘s Karen Kasler reports: “The legislation freezes the number of EdChoice buildings at 517, the same number as this school year—though new rules on criteria for determining whether a building was failing and the students were EdChoice eligible were supposed to have that number soaring to over 1200.” The number of EdChoice Designated public schools was supposed to have jumped on February 1, but in late January, unable to agree on a plan, members of the legislature gave themselves a two-month extension until April 1. By acting on Wednesday to freeze the number of voucher-eligible buildings, legislators at least blocked what would have been next week’s massive expansion of the program.
However, the legislature’s EdChoice freeze on the number of eligible buildings will slow but not stop the number of new vouchers students are taking from their local school districts through something called “the school-district deduction.”
In a statement on Wednesday, the President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, Melissa Cropper explains why the emergency bill, passed on Wednesday to stop the number of voucher-eligible schools from exploding to 1,200 on April 1, won’t solve the problem for school districts: “The Ohio (Legislature) took action today to freeze building eligibility for EdChoice performance-based vouchers. Unfortunately, total voucher recipients will most likely increase, as new students entering kindergarten and high school in eligible buildings are still eligible for EdChoice vouchers, along with any siblings of current voucher recipients. This freeze on building eligibility is a temporary reprieve at best. It is certainly not a fix to the escalating problem we have in Ohio of diverting public funds to unaccountable private schools. School districts like Cleveland Heights-University Heights and other high poverty districts will continue to be disproportionately affected and will continue to suffer budget shortfalls.”
Here are the three primary problems with Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program—three problems the Legislature failed to address on Wednesday, when it imposed a freeze on the number of school buildings designated by the state for the program:
First Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers are currently “performance-based,”meaning that they are available to students who live in the attendance zone of a “Designated EdChoice” public school. A public schools is designated for EdChoice if Ohio’s state school district report card awards the school a grade of “D” or “F”—a term that denotes a “failing” school during school years 2013-14, 2017-18, and 2018-19 in any one of six report card categories: Achievement, Progress, Gap Closing, Graduation Rate, Improving At-Risk K-3 Readers and Prepared for Success. The algorithms which determine the grades are not public, and there is consensus across the state and even in the legislature that the report card system is seriously flawed. (The state changed standardized tests and created a so-called safe harbor when test scores would not count during three school years: 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17.)
In early February, the Ohio House passed a bill to phase out performance-based EdChoice vouchers and move all students accepting a new voucher to a new Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship, an income-based voucher program with students qualifying if their family’s income is at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. In February, the Ohio Senate summarily defeated this proposal.
Second EdChoice vouchers are funded by a local school district deduction; the Ohio legislature does not fund EdChoice vouchers out of the state budget. High school students take $6,000 and students in grades K-8 take $4,650 from their local school district’s budget. These students are counted as though they are enrolled in the school district, and the state counts them in the basic aid it sends to the school district, but in many school districts the amount a student carries away in the voucher is more than the school district receives in per-pupil state aid. To complicate matters further, the state froze state aid to public school districts in the recent budget, which means that school districts did not get any additional money to cover voucher students this year. And while the state once required that to qualify for a voucher, the student must have previously attended the public school from which he or she is carrying the voucher, in the budget bill last summer, the state changed the rule to permit high school students who have always attended private or religious schools to secure a voucher. Suddenly, a wave of students who have never attended public schools claimed vouchers. In all these ways, the state has expanded the number of students receiving vouchers without covering school districts’ financial losses.
The bill which the Ohio House passed in February would have phased out the school district deduction by funding its proposed Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship vouchers directly out of the state budget, leaving only today’s current EdChoice recipients and their siblings funded by school district deductions. It was at least a partial way to protect school districts from future financial losses, but the Senate summarily rejected the House plan.
Third When the EdChoice program was surreptitiously expanded by members of the state budget conference committee last summer, the number of vouchers grew immediately, and many school districts have already experienced catastrophic financial losses during the current school year. For example, in Cleveland Heights-University Heights—the school district which, of all the 610 Ohio school districts, has been affected most disastrously this year by the EdChoice expansion—the school district published a brochure explaining why the state legislature’s action to expand vouchers had made it necessary to put an operating levy on the March 2020 primary election ballot: “In CH-UH, approximately 1,400 students, 94% of whom have never attended our K-12 public schools, are taking scholarships to attend private schools. This has amounted to an actual loss of $4.2 million for us last fiscal year and an estimated loss of $6.8 million this fiscal year… The CH-UH City School District will ask the community for a new 7.9 mill operating levy in March. The current funding issues with EdChoice are the major reason for this millage.” After the pandemic delayed the March primary election, residents of Cleveland Heights and University Heights will consider the issue in the re-scheduled, vote-by-mail, April 28, primary election.
It had been hoped that the legislature would offer some financial assistance to ameliorate the damage to school districts whose budgets have already been seriously reduced by the unexpected explosive growth of vouchers in this school year. Various possible ways to hold these school districts harmless were even discussed by legislators during negotiations last fall and in the winter. This week, however, the legislature omitted from the coronavirus omnibus bill any funding to provide relief.
Finally Vouchers, whether they extract scarce tax revenues from state education budgets or local school district budgets, drain money that is needed to serve the mass of children in public schools.
In Ohio, however, EdChoice vouchers also impose an unjust and disparate burden on the school districts which serve concentrations of poor children. Ohio public policy has punished rather than helping schools in the state’s poorest communities despite that a large body of academic research confirms that aggregate standardized test scores are primarily an indicator of the overall economics of the community. The idea has been to incentivize educators in low-scoring school districts to close achievement gaps by frightening them to work harder and, with vouchers and charter schools, to create escapes for students. The vouchers—along with other punitive policies including state school district takeovers, expansion of charter schools, stiffer graduation requirements, school district report cards, and the third grade guarentee—hurt the most vulnerable school districts instead of offering urgently needed support.
These public policies are imposed on top of extremely unequal state school funding. Ohio legislators are working on a new Cupp-Patterson school funding plan because 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—80 percent—are either capped or on hold-harmless guarantees—getting the same funding they have received for years, and this year the legislature has frozen formula basic aid for all districts at last year’s level because the state says it is short of revenue.
The imposition of punitive policies only further isolates school districts serving poor children, and their isolation further limits their political power to ameliorate the injustices. Hence, in Ohio this week we have a coronavirus omnibus bill that stops the spread of EdChoice vouchers into hundreds more public schools—some of them located in wealthy districts—but keeps the program in place in school districts which already have EdChoice Designated buildings, where more and more students in Kindergarten and high school will continue to be able to secure the vouchers that suck money out of the local school budget.
School officials and parents in most of Ohio’s school districts won’t have to worry, because their local school budgets are not affected. And state legislators can take a deep breath, because nobody in the current Ohio legislature had enough power to ensure that the state would pay for a fiscally out-of-control program the legislature has forced school districts to underwrite locally. Surreptitiously last summer, somebody inserted an amendment into the state budget—an amendment which won’t affect state revenues at all. The money flows out of the budgets of some of the state’s most vulnerable school districts into the coffers of private and religious schools, and nobody is really even keeping track of how much money is being diverted out of the public schools.
This blog has recently covered the crisis created in Ohio by the legislature’s recent expansion of EdChoice vouchers. All of the material in today’s post is documented here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
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