Ohio Legislature Heats Up Controversy by Making New Public School Funding Plan and Method of Funding School Vouchers All Part of the Budget

This week in my school district in Cleveland Heights-University Heights, Ohio, parents and public school supporters are going through a quiet ritual. People have been scrambling to write and submit legislative testimony. Some people are submitting written testimony; others are driving two and a half hours to Columbus, sitting in the hearing room and driving home in the dark. The Ohio Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee is holding hearings on the state’s next biennial budget and considering a new—desperately needed—school funding plan that has now been folded into the budget bill, which must be passed by June 30.

What is happening is a big deal.  Last fall, a new $2 billion school funding plan was passed by the Ohio House by a vote of 87-9, but the Ohio Senate let the bill die at the end of the session. Now that plan has been folded into the state budget. The House has already passed the budget—including the Fair School Funding Plan—but the Senate is just now holding hearings. If you read some of the testimony being submitted, you might imagine what’s going on in Ohio would get coverage in the state’s big newspapers, but most of them have been bought out by Gannett-Gatehouse Media or Advance Media, companies that have reduced the number of reporters.  Right now not enough people are paying attention to a debate about whether the Legislature will repair the services our state is currently failing to provide for 1.6 million students in Ohio’s 610 public school districts at the same time the state continues to expand school vouchers at public schools’ expense.

I am going to share some of my own testimony and the testimony from others who are members of the Heights Coalition for Public Education. You can find copies of each of these documents in the Ohio Senate Education Committee’s document archive for May 4, 5, and 6.  I will date each reference.

My own testimony (May 6) summarizes the issues at stake in this particular Ohio budget debate, which also includes a fight about the new state school funding plan. I name three principles embodied by the new school funding plan we hope the Senate will fold into the state budget: “The Fair School Funding Plan… enhances equity, increases the state’s investment in the under-resourced public schools which serve concentrations of our state’s poorest children, and ends school district deduction funding for charter schools and EdChoice vouchers for private school tuition.”

On the need for more equitable school funding, I quote Howard Fleeter, our state’s school finance expert, who documents that “poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18” while “the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.”

On the subject of adequate school funding, I quote Policy Matters Ohio’s Wendy Patton, who has demonstrated that, “By 2020, the state share of school funding had fallen to its lowest point since 1985,” and Howard Fleeter who reminds us: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.”

And on the subject of the catastrophe of Ohio’s “school district deduction” funding for EdChoice vouchers, I describe data from Scott Gainer, the Treasurer of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district. In Ohio, the state counts voucher students as though they attend the public schools and then sends the voucher amount—$4,650 for younger students and $6,000 for high school students—to the private school.  In my school district and many others, the voucher amount is far more than the district receives from the state in basic aid for that student. The result: In my school district between 2017 and today, the District’s loss to vouchers has grown from $2,256,017 to $9,017,250. The district is losing 45 percent of the district’s state basic aid school funding even though 1,699 of our district’s 1,792 voucher students—roughly 95% have never been enrolled in our public schools.

The burden of EdChoice vouchers falls unevenly from school district to school district, and to add to the inequity imposed by “school district deduction” funding for the vouchers, last November the Legislature restructured this program to prescribe that from now on, only children living in the attendance zone of a federally designated Title I school can qualify for an EdChoice voucher. This change places the financial burden of the vouchers only on the school districts serving concentrations of Ohio’s poorest children.

I conclude my testimony: While “the Ohio Constitution does not provide for the diversion of tax dollars to privately operated charter schools or to private school tuition vouchers, the framers of the Ohio Constitution understood public education as a guarantee to each of our children of the right to a school that protects their rights by law and serves their particular needs. Twenty-four years ago, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the Constitution’s promise of adequate public school funding , equitably distributed…. By ensuring that the Fair School Funding Plan remains intact in the budget, you will… realize the twenty-four year DeRolph promise.”

As a senior citizen whose children graduated from high school twenty years ago, I can lay out the reasons the Legislature needs to repair our state’s long-broken school finance system, but others from our district who are current parents and teachers also presented testimony to the legislature this week. They describe what they have watched in recent years as our state’s school funding system has collapsed.

Krissy Dietrich, who chaired two school levy campaigns in 2020 in an effort to keep our school district afloat, told the Senate Education Committee: “I’ve been volunteering to pass CH-UH school levies and bond issues for nearly 15 years, working on my first campaign when my eldest son was still in preschool. Most recently, I chaired back-to-back levies in 2020, one in the Primary Election that lost by 700 votes and one in the General that won by less than half of one percent of the votes cast. Our committee raised nearly $120,000 to run these two campaigns. We spent countless hours working to convince voters; we engaged many hundreds of volunteers over a period of 11 months…. (W)e are forced to engage in a brutal and expensive public battle every few years just to secure the most basic funding necessary to educate our community’s children. We are forced to do this by a funding system that is inherently broken. It is unconstitutional, unsustainable, and unfair.” (May 6)

Joan Spoerl, the parent of a junior at Cleveland Heights High School, explains: “When I listened to testimony relating to state education policies last February, I was struck by the oft-repeated themes from public school supporters from every kind of community in Ohio—small, medium, large, rural and urban. Rural community members described their public schools as the heart or center of their community. Many voiced pride about how their public schools welcome and serve all who need them, turn away no one, weaving together all kinds of children and families, forming a beautiful tapestry of community. But I also learned that my community isn’t unique in finding its beautiful fabric too often weakened or rent by the state’s current funding model and other education policies. I heard about the divisions created in all kinds of communities, by the need for levy campaigns to simply keep up with inflation and the unfortunate consequences of budget cuts when those levies fail” (May 6)

Toni Thayer, parent of two current Heights High students describes her children’s losses at school due to recent budget cuts: “It is from the point of view of my children and their peers that I first want to appeal to you.  My children… love their schools and they love our community, for its rich commitment to diversity, education, and the arts. But they have watched over the course of their time in public school the effects of a broken school funding system that has only gotten worse as the charter school movement and the EdChoice voucher program have diverted public funds away from public schools. They have seen their class sizes increase and their curricular options decrease. They have said goodbye to beloved and highly qualified teachers who were downsized for budgetary reasons. Even more painful than all of that, they have watched as our community has been turned against itself over school funding. Our district relies heavily on residential property taxes for local school funding because, as a tightly packed inner-ring suburb, we have little commercial tax base. The heavy burden on homeowners and the need for frequent levies to make up for gaps in funding from the state have pushed us to the breaking point.” (May 5)

Ari Klein, a 33 year math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, has watched how legislative decisions over the decades have hurt our school district: “My two children graduated from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, where my wife, my parents, and I all went to school. I am retiring next month from my entire 33 year teaching career in this same school system. Throughout my career I have witnessed desperation for funding public schools that has gotten worse and worse. We have always taxed ourselves heavily in my community, but in the last 8-10 years the state has caused an exponential drain on local dollars by allowing the deduction method of funding community schools (Ohio’s name for charter schools), as well as private and parochial schools through vouchers. My district has been hard hit with losses not because you have labelled our schools as “failing” but because we have a diverse community that has a significant private and parochial school population. 93% of the families who use EdChoice vouchers have never attended and never planned to attend our public schools. We now lose more than half of our annual state foundation funding!… (L)ocal dollars must be used to subsidize… (voucher students) since our state aid is less than the money the state requires to be deducted from our school district… The results of these state policies for our community are enormous because with district enrollment at just over 5,000 we can’t afford to pay the price for an additional 2,200 students who use community (charter) schools and vouchers. Remember, over 90% of these students using vouchers have never set foot in our buildings.” (May 6)

Finally, Susan Kaeser, long a public school advocate and leader in the Heights Coalition for Public Education, defines the value of public education in her challenge to the members of the Ohio Senate: “Your decision about whether or not you choose to fund a high-quality system of public schools is a values choice. Are you committed to the equal value of every resident of our state? Do you support the Ohio Constitution and the operating principle that education is a civic resource not a consumer choice? When you use public funds for parallel systems operated with different rules, you weaken the public system and its civic benefits… This is a critical moment in Ohio’s history. After a relentless assault on the reputation of our system of public education, years of flat funding of the public schools and extravagant funding of nonpublic and often for-profit education providers, many districts are on the verge of financial collapse.” (May 4)