Five Reasons Why the Lawsuit Filed by Over 100 School Districts to End Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers Is So Urgently Important

As I listened to a webinar last week about the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit filed by more than 100 school districts to demand that the court finds our state’s EdChoice Voucher program unconstitutional under the Ohio Constitution, I challenged myself to name five succinct reasons this lawsuit is so urgently important.  Here is my five point argument against Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers.

First — EdChoice Vouchers were premised on a false assumption—that standardized test scores are a measure of school quality.

In fact aggregate standardized test scores reflect primarily our society’s family economic inequality from school district to school district. In the fall of 2019, the Plain Dealer’s data wonk, Rich Exner, created a series of bar graphs to demonstrate the almost perfect correlation of school districts’ letter grades on the state school district report card with family income.  Standardized test scores are not a good measure of school quality.

By basing voucher eligibility for students on their school’s low standardized test scores as reflected in the state school report cards, legislators who initiated the voucher program premised the idea of vouchers as an escape route for students from public schools instead of developing a strategy to support the public schools that serve our state’s poorest children.

In research summarized in a newsletter last October describing the National Education Policy Center’s new Price of Opportunity Project, NEPCs executive Director Kevin Welner explains that school achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests instead reflect larger opportunity gaps:  “Those of us who work in or with schools never question the enormous impact that a teacher or school can have on a student. But this essential truth coexists with another truth: that differences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S arise primarily outside of schools. This should not be a surprise. Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economic inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income and wealth. Compared to the Scandinavian countries and other so-called Western democracies like Canada, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, American children are inordinately trapped in intergenerational poverty. Inequality in the U.S. is stark and enduring.”

Second — Ohio school districts serving masses of poor students lose urgently needed school funding to vouchers. The students who remain in district public schools suffer program losses when other students extract essential school funding to pay private school tuition.

In Ohio, EdChoice Vouchers, funded by school district deduction, have taken money year after year from the budgets of local school districts serving masses of Ohio’s poorest children. Until last summer’s budget bill, the Legislature made the school districts themselves pay for the vouchers out of their local budgets and therefore increase class size, or cut the number of counselors and school nurses, or shutter the school library in the public school.  At last week’s Vouchers Hurt Ohio webinar, Cleveland Heights-University Heights school board member, Dan Heintz, explained that of the 22 Ohio school districts most severely penalized by the EdChoice Voucher program, all 22 are majority poor, and 19 are majority African American. In these school districts which desperately need increased services for their students, the loss of school funding to vouchers has pared down programming for the students who remain in the public schools.

Third — Many school districts lose more money to vouchers than they receive for voucher students in state foundation basic aid.

The state has awarded to the local school districts basic foundation aid for each of the voucher students, but the amount of each voucher in many cases has significantly exceeded the amount of per-pupil state aid coming to the district. In many of these districts which primarily serve students in poverty, the state has been extracting more money for each voucher student to carry out of the school district budget than it spends on each student who remains in the district’s public schools.  Many of the students taking vouchers out of the school district budget have never been enrolled in the district’s public schools and have always attended private schools. Heintz reminded viewers that in his district, 95 percent of students taking vouchers have never been enrolled in the school district.

The lawsuit, as filed, delineates the losses in public school funding for Heintz’s district, one of the plaintiff districts: “The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District… is expected to receive from the state of Ohio a total of approximately $5.6 million in foundation funding for Fiscal Year 2022 to educate the 5,000 students who attend its schools. The state of Ohio, however, will pay out over $11 million for private school tuition to the approximately 1,800 EdChoice Voucher recipients residing within the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in Fiscal Year 2022. In other words, approximately twice as much public funding will be paid in Fiscal Year 2022 for private school tuition for CH-UH residents as the foundation funding allotted to the entire student body of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights District.”

Fourth — EdChoice Vouchers have exacerbated white flight.

In a number of school districts, EdChoice vouchers have accelerated racial segregation, as white students have taken the vouchers to attend private schools.  At the press conference where the lawsuit was announced, a member of the Richmond Heights Local Schools Board of Education, Nneka Jackson explained how, in her Cleveland suburban school district, EdChoice Vouchers have increased racial isolation: “If someone tells you this is about helping poor minority children, hook them up to a lie detector test ASAP and stand back because the sparks are going to fly… About 40 percent of Richmond Heights residents are white. Before the EdChoice private school voucher program, about 26 percent of the students in the Richmond Heights School District were white and 74 percent were students of color. Today, after EDChoice, Richmond Heights is three percent white and 97 percent students of color. Private schools are allowed to discriminate, plain and simple, based on disability, disciplinary records, academic standing, religion and financial status. These are often proxies for race and other protected characteristics. Ohio is essentially engaged in state-sponsored discrimination in admissions and retention. You know who can’t do this? Public schools. Common schools.”

Fifth — By expanding the EdChoice Voucher program in the FY2022-2023 state budget, the legislature made it impossible to fully phase in the new Fair School Funding plan it passed in the same state budget.

The state ended school district deduction finding for EdChoice Vouchers in the FY 2022-FY2023 state budget and will fund the vouchers out of the state’s public school foundation budget.  In the very same the FY 2022-FY2023 state budget, the legislature passed a new Fair School Funding Plan. By expanding EdChoice Vouchers, the state has rendered itself unable to fully phase in the Fair School Funding Plan.

The lawsuit declares: “Under House Bill 110, in the state budget bill recently passed by the General Assembly, effective June 30, 2021, the EdChoice Program has been greatly expanded both in terms of eligibility for the EdChoice Program and its scope. Indeed, HB 110 eliminates previous limits on the number of EdChoice Program vouchers the Ohio Department of Education can approve… Because public funds are finite, funding EdChoice Program Vouchers out of the foundation funding designated for public school districts inevitably depletes the resources designated by the legislature for educating Ohio’s public school students… HB 110 initially incorporated the salient features of the… Fair School Funding Plan, a bipartisan effort to fund Ohio’s public schools adequately and equitably as required by the Ohio Supreme Court in DeRolph v. State…. However, due to the ballooning effects of the EdChoice Program, the enacted version of HB 110 funded only up to one-third of the increases required by the proposed Fair School Funding Plan over the next two fiscal years.”

The Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit challenges a state program that has exacerbated systemic racial and economic injustice.

Kevin Welner: In Our Alarmingly Unequal Society, Public Schools by Themselves Cannot Be the Great Equalizer

Someone should send Kevin Welner’s timely essay, “The Mythical Great Equalizer School System,” to Senator Joe Manchin, who has said he opposes expanding the Child Tax Credit as part of Build Back Better.

Welner’s essay, part of a new collection of essays, Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, is urgently timely. It examines the educational implications of the philosophy behind what has become the most controversial provision of President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, now passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting action in the U.S. Senate: repairing a deeply flawed Child Tax Credit.

Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and executive director of the National Education Policy Center, demonstrates that in a nation with millions of children living in poverty, public schools by themselves cannot provide enough support to compensate for the detrimental effects of alarming economic inequality. Welner examines the old and widely accepted myth that our public system of education is the great equalizer: “Can schools balance our societal inequality? If that inequality is left unaddressed, along with the harm it does to children, can policymakers reasonably expect an outcome of rough equality through focusing instead on building a dazzling public school system that would envelop those children in rich opportunities to learn? Admittedly, this describes an odd (and cruel) policy approach: to first inflict awful harm on children and then pour resources into schools in a desperate attempt to mitigate the harm.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

The Child Tax Credit has provided some support for child rearing since its passage in 1997. President Biden’s COVID relief bill passed in March of 2021 temporarily fixed problems with the Child Tax Credit as a way to help parents get through a year dominated by COVID-19.  For the NY Times, Ben Casselman explains: “Congress last spring expanded the existing child tax credit in three ways.  First, it made the benefits more generous, providing as much as $3,600 per child, up from $2,000. Second, it began paying the credit in monthly installments usually deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts, turning the once-yearly windfall into something closer to the children’s allowances common in Europe. Finally, the bill made the full benefit available to millions who had previously been unable to take full advantage of the credit because they earned too little to qualify. Poverty experts say that change, known in tax jargon as ‘full refundability,’ was particularly significant because without it a third of children—including half of all Black and Hispanic children, and 70 percent of children being raised by single mothers—did not receive the full credit. Mr. Biden’s plan would have made that provision permanent.”

Because the Senate failed to pass Build Back Better by the end of 2021, these changes expired on New Year’s Eve.  If Senator Manchin would agree, these reforms can be reinstated in the Senate’s version of Build Back Better, which Congressional leaders still pledge to pass.

You can find some of Welner’s research summarized in a newsletter last October describing the National Education Policy Center’s new Price of Opportunity Project: “Those of us who work in or with schools never question the enormous impact that a teacher or school can have on a student. But this essential truth coexists with another truth: that differences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S arise primarily outside of schools. This should not be a surprise. Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economical inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income and wealth. Compared to the Scandinavian countries and other so-called Western democracies like Canada, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, American children are inordinately trapped in intergenerational poverty. Inequality in the U.S. is stark and enduring.”

In the longer essay published in Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Welner explains that between 60 and 80 percent of the achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests are attributable to outside-of-school opportunity gaps based on family income. Unlike President Biden, whose Build Back Better Bill acknowledges the lifetime impact of childhood poverty, Welner explains: “Many policymakers and others are still mired in a type of magical thinking. They have somehow convinced themselves that children’s opportunities to learn outside of school are not particularly important—that policy should simply focus on making schools more equal.” (Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, pp. 91-92)

Inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding across the states only complicates the problem: “Meanwhile the national discussion of school funding is so impoverished…. We hail states like New Jersey and Washington when legislators finally stop dragging their feet in response to decades of court orders in adequacy cases. But the legislators never actually meet or exceed the adequacy standard—and that standard remains far below what is needed…. (N)o state has yet reached… the level of equity that we call ‘minimal adequacy.’ This is defined as the additional resources to give all students a realistic shot at reaching basic levels set forth by state standards…. Even if we were ever to get to that point, vast inequality would remain in place because of opportunity gaps that arise due to societal inequalities.”(Public Education, Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 87)

Welner believes that federal policy must address childhood poverty both inside and outside of school, and his essay is timely in the context of the dilemma facing Congress this winter. There is widespread agreement among advocates for children that President Biden’s reforms to the Child Tax Credit are the most basic way to begin ameliorating the opportunity gaps that Kevin Welner identifies as the greatest barrier to school achievement among children living in poverty.

First Focus on Children’s executive director, Bruce Lesley quotes from the recommendations of a 1991 National Commission on Children, recommendations advocates used in 1997 to justify the establishment of the Child Tax Credit: “Because it would assist all families with children, the refundable child tax credit would not be a relief payment, nor would it categorize children according to their ‘welfare’ or ‘nonwelfare’ status. In addition, because it would not be lost when parents enter the work force , as welfare benefits are, the refundable child tax credit could provide a bridge for families striving to enter the economic mainstream. It would substantially benefit hard-pressed single and married parents raising children. It could also help middle-income, employed parents struggling to afford high-quality child care. Moreover, because it is neutral toward family structure and mothers’ employment, it would not discourage the formation of two-parent families or of single-earner families in which one parent chooses to stay at home and care for the children.”

Lesley reminds us that, according to the Urban Institute, “under current law, the share of all new federal spending through 2030 for the adult portions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will be 71% compared to just 2% for children’s programs.”  And he quotes findings from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget—that “while much of spending on adults is mandatory, spending on children is disproportionately discretionary…. Spending on children is disproportionately temporary…. Spending on adults is rarely limited while spending on children is often capped…. Most programs for children lack built-in growth…. Programs for children lack dedicated revenue and thus lack the political advantage and protection of programs for seniors that enjoy this benefit.”

Lesley urges Congress to make permanent the reforms to the Child Tax Credit passed temporarily for 2021 in last spring’s COVID relief bill.  These reforms benefited 65 million children “including an estimated 4 million children lifted out of poverty….”

However, among the three reforms to the Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan— increasing the amount of the per-child benefit, distributing the tax credit monthly instead of once a year, and making the tax credit fully refundable—one reform surpasses the others for ameliorating child poverty.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities emphasizes that, for America’s children, permanently making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable for families with very low income is the most important element in Build Back Better:

“In the absence of the full refundability provision, the first two of those changes would lift an estimated 543,000 children above the poverty line, reducing the child poverty rate by 5 percent… But the two changes plus full refundability stand to raise 4.1 million children above the poverty line and cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent. In other words, the full refundability feature makes the expansion nearly eight times as effective in reducing child poverty.” “Prior to the Rescue Plan, 27 million children received less than the full Child Tax Credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low. That included roughly half of all Black and Latino children and half of children who live in rural communities… This upside-down policy gave less help to the children who needed it most. The (COVID) Rescue Plan temporarily fixed this policy by making the tax credit fully refundable for 2021.  Build Back Better, in one of its signature achievements, would make this policy advance permanent.”  (emphasis in the original)

Let Us Count the Ways that Charter Schools Rip Off their Students and the Taxpayers

The National Association for Public Charter Schools, one of the big lobbying organizations for charter schools, proclaims that these institutions operate as public institutions to promote the public interest. But charter schools are a classic example of private contracting. They operate with public tax dollars, but they are governed (often without transparency) by private boards, which themselves operate under state regulations that tend to be extremely lax and poorly enforced. Here are two excellent examples of prominent advocates for traditional public schools and against school privatization dissecting, in depth, the ways that charter schools continue to rip off the public.

New Book Exposes How Charter Schools Regularly Find Ways to Select Students Who Will Be a Credit to the School

On September 10, Teachers College Press published a new book by Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner, of the University of Colorado at Boulder: School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape EnrollmentMommandi and Welner explore a topic that has emerged again and again in local examples of injustice over the years: Charter schools somehow manage to select their students despite that they advertise themselves as public schools, which are required by law to serve every student who comes through the door.

Back on January 20, 1960, when my family moved to the small town of Havre, Montana, my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to the office of Wilbur Swenson, then the school principal.  As the law required, Mr. Swenson assigned me to the 7th grade, and I began school immediately that morning. Despite that today most people must formally enroll at the school district’s main office, the requirement for universal enrollment still works the same way in public schools across the United States. Public schools are required by law to provide programming to serve the needs of all students and must protect their rights. Public schools are not permitted to choose their students.

Over the years, we have read story after story of charter schools that call themselves “public” but somehow cheat on this requirement and get away with it. Now Mommandi and Welner have summarized and explored all the ways charter schools cheat on this requirement, and the reasons why they do: “Our research… taught us that such philosophies about limiting access are not uncommon among charter school administrators. In fact, we discovered that the charter school system has in place a variety of incentives and disincentives that actually penalize charter schools if they pursue broad public access. By contrast, charter school administrators inclined to limit public access find their schools rewarded with more prepared students who are less expensive to educate and who generate plaudits from politicians and media looking for feel-good stories about schools with unusually high test scores.”

In the publicity Teachers College Press released about the new book, Mommandi and Welner provide a table of “13 broad categories containing the many different ways that charter schools shape their enrollment.” Charter schools have especially found ways to exclude students who require expensive special services: “(W)e found that students with special needs are harmed by several… types of practices including: school design and marketing that signals that these students are unwelcome; steering away parents during enrollment in part by explaining that the school has few resources or services that meet the needs of special education students; counseling out enrolled special-needs students, or telling them that if they remain they will be retained in grade; and of course, extreme and burdensome discipline.”

New Story Exposes For-Profit  Management Companies with “Sweeps Contracts” Reaping Huge Profits from Shady Real Estate Deals at the Expense of the Nonprofit Charter Schools They Manage

The Network for Public Education’s executive director Carol Burris reports:  “National Heritage Academies (NHA), the third-largest for-profit charter chain in the nation, is selling 69 of its more than 90 schools to a new corporation created just for the purchase. Charter Development Co., the real estate arm of NHA, will receive the payout from a sale that requires nearly $1 billion to finance. This massive transfer of public dollars into private wealth is running into some roadblocks, however, in NHA’s home state of Michigan. Both Charter Development Co. and National Heritage Academies are owned by J.C. Huizenga, an education reform entrepreneur… The sale of the 69 NHA campuses in seven different states, like the operation of Huizenga’s charter schools, is wrapped in secrecy, even though taxpayers have paid the mortgages for years.”

Most state laws require charter schools to be nonprofits. But many small private nonprofit boards turn over the operation of their charter school to a for-profit management company. Sweeps contracts are commonplace—contracts under which the nonprofit board turns over more than 90 percent of the school’s revenue to the for-profit management company without any transparency about how the management company will spend the funds. National Heritage Academies manages its 90 schools under sweeps contracts. “Other examples of sweeps contracts include the contract between the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy and the for-profit chain Accel Online Ohio, a Nevada limited liability company; the contract between the Northeast Raleigh Charter Academy, and its for-profit management Torchlight Academy Schools; and the contract between Ohio Virtual Academy and K12 Virtual Schools.”

Burris continues: In most cases, for-profit management is an attempt to get around Title 20 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which requires (charter) schools to be nonprofit organizations to be eligible to receive federal funding. The nonprofit school is a facade for the for-profit corporation… Ultimately, Huizenga’s charter school cash-out financed by the taxpayers will probably go forward.  Unless Congress acts and closes the loophole, the 139 for-profit corporations that manage more than 1,100 charter schools in the United States will continue to put profits before taxpayers and kids.  And more cash-outs funded at taxpayers’ expense will occur.”

Charter schools have been operating now for a quarter of a century, and we have watched their abuses city by city.  But the stories of violations of the public interest and and fraud and corruption have only become more complex as their operators figure out new ways to rip off public tax dollars and violate core principles of public education by quietly selecting their students and leaving students with expensive needs in the public schools.

Will the President Say Something Meaningful in SOTU about Inequality and Public Education?

Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist has extensively documented the impact of neighborhood inequality on school achievement.

In a report released last fall, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, Reardon describes residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 in 2009).  These metropolitan areas are, according to Bischoff and Reardon, “home to 197 million people.”

Bischoff and Reardon study the segregation of families, not households, because, “Segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area.  Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”

Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime.

While the research report is dense, the conclusions demonstrate clearly that in America we are increasingly raising our children in pockets of extreme poverty or pockets of extreme affluence:

  • By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income, although, “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor.”
  • Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000.  While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families.  “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families.  The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.  And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods…”  Racial segregation continues even for the black middle class.

In an earlier 2011 study, Reardon demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The inequality achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

During the George Bush and Barack Obama administrations, support has been bipartisan for a political agenda that fails to address child poverty and that ignores growing economic inequality and accompanying isolation of the poorest children in urban neighborhoods defined by their concentrated poverty.  The bipartisan agenda, established in the 2002 federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and perpetuated in ongoing policies like Race to the Top, has operated through sanctions for the schools and teachers struggling to raise test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities. Today’s bipartisan public school “reform” philosophy is dominated by the principles of competition (ranking and rating schools), creative disruption (closing schools and firing principals and teachers), and privatization (assuming that charter schools  and even on-line schools can magically address the needs of children who struggle).  There has been little conversation about addressing inequality, ameliorating poverty, or even bringing school funding up to a level of equity between wealthy and poor school districts.

In a recent guest post published as part of Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, Kevin Welner, the director of the  National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, asks those who listen to President Obama’s State of the Union Message on Tuesday night, which is expected to address the issue of income inequality, to look for substantive plans to address inequality and not merely  “unproven and ineffectual treatments.”  Welner decries the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations:  “We heap demands on those schools, deprive them of the resources they urgently need, and then declare them to be ‘failing schools’ when they don’t perform miracles.”

Welner suggests our nation’s children living in poverty (an alarming 22 percent of all children in the United States) deserve a serious answer to this question: “How do I design, pass, and implement a package of policies that have been shown to be effective at addressing wealth inequality and the damage caused by that inequality?”  He suggests that strategies aimed to lift families out of poverty are, in reality, policies to improve school achievement.  “We should honestly consider policies like a guaranteed minimum income, increases in the minimum wage, and a tax structure that shifts the burden toward the extremely wealthy.  The way to reduce wealth inequality is to do just that: reduce wealth inequality.  Our public schools can help, but they cannot do it alone.”