Will the State Senate Punish Ohio’s 1.6 Million Public School Students by Letting School Funding Reform Die?

The Ohio House Finance Committee voted unanimously (32-0) on Wednesday to refer Substitute House Bill 305, the proposal for a new Fair School Funding Formula, to the full Ohio House for approval. And late yesterday afternoon, the Ohio House of Representatives passed the bill by huge margin: 84-8.

The Ohio Senate, however, is dragging its feet on Senate Bill 376, the companion bill. Plain Dealer reporter Laura Hancock quotes Senator Matt Dolan, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, hinting that he will not bring SB 376 to for a vote by his committee:  “I remain hesitant to pass this… There are still studies that need to be done. I think it’s going to be difficult to pass this out, out of the context of a state budget.”  Senator Dolan has said that he doesn’t want to enact a plan that will eventually cost a lot of money without having the money up front.

The authors of the new school funding plan know the legislature currently lacks the money to pay for the plan’s full implementation, which is why they prescribe a six-year phase in. The authors describe it as a blueprint for an equitable and adequate system.

I don’t know anybody other than Senator Matt Dolan—and likely Senator Matt Huffman, the incoming Senate President—who believes more studies are needed before we know how the plan is designed to work. Representatives Bob Cupp and John Patterson built the plan upon at least three years of study by experts. The House has held a number of hearings since the the plan was originally introduced in the spring of 2019 and incorporated further adjustments to enhance the equity of the plan.

The clearest explanation I’ve seen is in Howard Fleeter’s testimony, presented to the House Finance Committee at the committee’s final hearing on Substitute HB 305 on December 2.  (You can find Dr. Fleeter’s testimony near the end of the list of submitted testimony, third from the bottom.) Better than anyone else, Fleeter grasps the nuances of Ohio school finance. Here are Fleeter’s credentials as he presents them to the Finance Committee in his testimony: “I have a PhD in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, I spent 10 years as a Public Policy professor at The Ohio State University, and I have been researching school funding and education policy in Ohio for nearly 30 years. My career working with Ohio policymakers began when Governor Voinovich commissioned me to write my report, ‘Equity, Adequacy and Reliability in Ohio Education Finance,’ which I completed in November, 1992.”

Because the proposed Fair School Funding Plan is complicated and press reports have sometimes been confusing, I will quote extensively from Dr. Fleeter’s recent testimony.

Fleeter begins by explaining that Ohio needs a new school funding formula because for the past decade the state has lacked a working school funding plan: “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.  In FY12 and FY13, Ohio employed the ‘Bridge’ formula which was not really a formula at all, instead basing funding on FY11 levels. From FY14 through FY19, Ohio did have a school funding formula; however, this formula suffered from several significant deficiencies. First the base cost was not based on any adequacy methodology, instead just utilizing per pupil amounts selected by the legislature. This approach is the very embodiment of ‘residual budgeting’ which was explicitly ruled unconstitutional in the March 1997 DeRolph ruling.”  Although the term “residual budgeting” sounds technical and complicated, what Fleeter is explaining is that from FY 14 to FY 19, the Legislature simply set per-pupil state funding based on now much “residual” money the Legislature had left in the budget after funding all the other expenses of state government.

Fleeter continues by explaining that between FY14 and FY19, a State Share Index, “the principle driver of equity in the state funding formula… was both inadequate and inequitable.”  Fleeter explains that the flaws in the formula left the vast majority of the state’s school districts on hold harmless guarantees (last year’s funding) or capped (last year’s funding) no matter what might have changed in their enrollment or the demonstrated funding needs of their student populations. Fleeter continues: “This problem has been made worse in the past 2 years as the FY20 and FY21 state aid formula has been frozen at FY19 levels.

Then there is the injustice in the way Ohio funds vouchers and charter schools through something called “the school district deduction.”  Fleeter believes the way Ohio funds school privatization is such a serious problem that it threatens the adequacy and equity of the entire school funding system: “Finally, the ‘deduction’ method used to fund Ohio’s community (charter) schools along with the EdChoice, Jon Peterson (for students with disabilities), and Autism voucher programs has also significantly undermined the adequacy and equity of school funding in Ohio by effectively deducting (from school districts’ local budgets) a ‘local share’ of funding because the deduction amount is greater than the state aid provides when these students are counted in a district’s formula ADM (Average Daily Membership).  This problem has also been made worse in the current FY20-FY21 biennium because the funding formula has been frozen at FY 19 levels while the community (charter) school and voucher deductions have been allowed to increase, meaning that all funding for new community (charter) school and voucher students in the past 2 years has effectively come from local revenue.”

Fleeter endorses the proposed Fair School Funding Plan because it measures the actual cost of educational services as the way to calculate the state and local contributions to school funding;  because the state would directly pay charter and voucher expenses to the school where each student is enrolled (eliminating school district deductions);  because the new plan “increases funding for economically disadvantaged students”;  because the new plan more accurately measures each local school district’s capacity to raise local tax revenue;  and because the new formula provides continuing Targeted Assistance and Capacity Aid to help lower wealth school districts provide the kind of enriched curricular opportunities for their students that wealthy districts provide as a matter of course.

Fleeter makes an extremely well informed, nuanced, and convincing argument for immediate passage of the new plan. He accepts the fact that it would be an improvement the state would live into during the six-year phase-in the plan’s authors envision.

So… why is the Ohio Senate dragging its feet?

First, Senator Louis Blessing has released an analysis that the plan will cost $3.5 billion when fully implemented, when its sponsors project the total cost at $2 billion. Fleeter devotes two pages of testimony to disproving Blessing’s analysis and explains: “My analysis concludes that the Senate’s assertions betray fundamental misunderstandings of the role played by the state aid formula and their cost estimates are wildly exaggerated, and in some cases simply incorrect.”

It is sadly true that Ohio is so broke that the new plan, if passed, cannot be fully funded in the biennial budget which will take effect on July 1, 2021. Because the state lacks the money, sponsors of the Fair School Funding Plan anticipate a phase-in over the next three biennial budgets.  Further budget cuts due to the current recession caused by COVID-19 shutdowns will complicate the phase-in; a $2 billion shortage in the current fiscal year has already been predicted.

I believe, however, that Dolan’s professed worries about the Fair Funding Plan’s expense cover something more sinister.  I suspect that powerful members of the Ohio Senate prize increasing the privatization of education; perhaps they don’t really worry about inadequate and inequitably distributed public school funding.

Senator Matt Dolan, chair of the Senate Finance Committee has used the excuse that there is no time to hold enough hearings before the end of the legislative session on December 31, when the bill will die if it is not passed by the Ohio Senate.  Senator Peggy Lehner, the Republican Education Committee chair, and Democratic Senator Vernon Sykes introduced SB 376—the companion bill to Substitute HB 305—on November 9.  At hearings on November 18 and December 1, the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony invited by the bill’s sponsors. So far Dolan has held no open open hearings to receive public testimony.

Senator Dolan’s inaction is surely being influenced by the incoming Ohio Senate President, Senator Matt Huffman, who has proven that he doesn’t worry about holding open hearings and doing adequate research before he pushes through his own priorities. For example, Huffman just rushed through—in two days without a public hearing—a massive revision of Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program. Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben explains what happened suddenly on November 18, 2020: “After months of public silence, the EdChoice private school voucher program reappeared at Wednesday’s Ohio Senate session… State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, brought back Senate Bill 89, completely changed from its last appearance in the chamber, when it mainly focused on career centers… The bill passed with 23 affirmative votes, and eight negative votes.” The bill, now a redesign of the state’s EdChoice vouchers, went immediately to the Ohio House and without further discussion, the Ohio House passed the bill on November 19.  The Governor has signed it.

Despite the need for a comprehensive, working school funding formula, and despite enthusiastic support in the Ohio House, powerful forces in the Ohio Senate appear to be trying to kill the proposed Ohio Fair School Funding Plan by allowing it to languish until the end of the session.

Senator Dolan says it can’t be passed without attached funding, and says its components must, therefore, be part of the budget bill the Legislature will take up in the spring. I fear that Senators Dolan and Huffman will perhaps include some of the plan’s parts in the next biennial budget.  We know, however, that Ohio does not have enough revenue to implement the whole plan without a phase-in.  And we know that breaking a comprehensive plan into bits and pieces will undermine the adequacy and equity balanced together by experts in the comprehensive Fair School Funding Plan. The Fair School Funding Plan’s sponsors openly call it a blueprint to be phased in, but they emphasize that to work, the plan must be passed as a comprehensive whole.

If the Ohio Senate sits on this bill until it dies on December 31, it will be a tragedy for Ohio’s children. The Legislature needs to pass the new funding plan and the state needs to begin to fund the plan’s systematic phase in.

Longstanding State Tax Freeze and New Voucher Explosion Create Overwhelming Financial Problems for Ohio School Districts

The Presidential election has torn the country apart this fall, but in my community, the local school operating levy on next week’s ballot has caused almost as much rancor. One problem is a 40-year-old property tax freeze law that keeps all Ohio school districts repeatedly begging for money. But the explosive expansion of school vouchers has compounded the problem.

Like many other parents in my community, I developed a deep personal interest in the tangled, arcane and seemingly boring subject of school finance back in the days, 35 years ago, when my children were enrolled in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools, the school district where my husband and I continue to reside. As a mom, I noticed that every time our community voted down a school operating levy—even if we finally passed it on the second or third try—our schools were forced to ratchet down services. Class sizes got bigger. The school nurses began to cover several buildings and were in any one school only one day per week. The inspiring and gifted certified school librarians who created exciting school-wide reading programs were replaced by aides and volunteers who were well meaning but not the same.

Next Tuesday in Cleveland Heights and University Heights, there are two primary issues voters ought to keep in mind as we go to the polls to try to prevent the schools that serve our community’s children from falling into fiscal catastrophe. These structural problems have been thrust on our school district by the state legislature. They have nothing to do with the management of our school district and nothing to do with the oversight of the local board of education. They are only creating added stress for our fine teachers who are doing their best to support our children during the pandemic.

First: In Ohio, property taxes are the primarily method of generating local school revenue. But to keep taxes low, in 1976, the Ohio Legislature passed House Bill 920—a freeze on local property taxes which was locked into the Ohio Constitution by a 1980 amendment. House Bill 920 prevents school districts from automatically collecting any extra property tax revenue when the value of houses and businesses appreciates. When the residents of a school district vote to pass a specified amount of operating millage, that levy will raise the same amount of revenue in perpetuity as it does on the day the levy passes. This means that as inflation inevitably occurs over the years, the school district must pass additional tax levies just to cover the added expense. The same is true if costs rise for other reasons. To cover added staffing or programming of any kind, the district must put another levy on the ballot. In Ohio, House Bill 920 forces school districts to be on the ballot regularly just to cover normal inflation or necessary increases in expenses.

Second, the Ohio Legislature is in love with charter schools and tax funded tuition vouchers for private and religious schools. Last week, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School funding,  Bill Phillis explained that in Ohio: “The direct state subsidies to private schools and school choice programs will cost taxpayers $751,894,805 in FY 21 and FY22; additionally, $2,352,881,306 will be deducted from school districts for vouchers and charters.” During these two fiscal years, the Legislature is diverting three quarters of a billion dollars out of the state budget to charter schools and school vouchers. But, more shockingly, the Legislature has found a way to suck over two billion dollars out of the budgets of the state’s 610 local school districts. (Emphasis is mine.)

The EdChoice voucher program operates through school district budget deductions, and when the Legislature passed the current FY 2020–FY 2021 biennial state budget in the summer of 2019, someone quietly inserted fine print that explosively expanded the number of students who could qualify to secure EdChoice vouchers. EdChoice extracts $6,000 for each high school voucher student and $4,650 for each K-8 voucher student right out of a local school district’s budget to pay private school tuition.

Here is how EdChoice works: Although voucher students attend private and religious schools, the state counts each voucher student as part of the per-pupil enrollment of the school district where the student resides, which means that the state pays per-pupil foundation basic aid to the school district for each of these students. In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district in a normal year, there is a net loss because the vouchers are worth more than our district’s state foundation funding. But this year the loss is even worse: In the current state budget, the Legislature froze the state’s foundation basic aid to all of the state’s school districts at the FY 2019 level. This means that the state is not allocating any additional funding to our school district to cover the new vouchers the state is awarding this year from our local budget.

Why have EdChoice vouchers become such a funding catastrophe for our school district?  In a PowerPoint presented to our school board last week, the school district’s treasurer, Scott Gainer explains that in our school district the number of students seeking vouchers—and the dollars being deducted from our school district’s budget—have grown precipitously.  Much of the growth occurred when the Legislature, in the FY 20-21 biennial state budget, expanded eligibility to all students in grades 8-11 in EdChoice designated school districts.

The amount diverted from our school district budget to EdChoice vouchers has grown from $2,256,017 in 2017;  to $3,232,403 in 2018;  to $4,187,249 in 2019;  to $7,074,249 in 2020;  to $9,017,250 in the current 2020-2021 school year.  Currently 1,792 students are carrying vouchers out of our school district budget at the expense of the 4,810 students enrolled in our public schools. This year EdChoice voucher students are carrying away to private and religious schools 45 percent of the school district’s state basic aid foundation school funding although they represent only 27 percent of the combined total of students the state counts as part of the district..

While 1,240 of those vouchers are renewals, which means that the district continues to collect some state aid to cover the vouchers, students applied for 552 new vouchers for this school year—a year when the state budget allocation is frozen at the FY 2019 level.  For these 552 students, the district is forced to cover the full cost of their vouchers—$2,566,800—out of the local school district budget.

And while the legislature claims that the vouchers are designed to help students and their families be able to make a choice to leave public schools, Gainer documents that in our school district during the current school year, 1,699 of the 1,792 students carrying the vouchers out of our school district—roughly 95 percent—have never been enrolled in our public schools.  In essence, this means that in our school district, and across Ohio, the Legislature is forcing local public school districts to undertake an unexpected expense: paying for private and religious education.

The explosive growth of EdChoice vouchers is the primary the reason our school district is on the ballot next week.  Unless our community supports this levy, the school district will be forced to reduce programming for the children and adolescents who attend our public schools.

Fortunately our community has proud history of supporting public education. This long list of endorsers is a mere sample of the people in our community who believe it is our public obligation to invest in our children. They explain: “We believe it is our public responsibility and our privilege to invest in providing opportunity for our children. By supporting our local levy, we must challenge the Ohio Legislature’s policies which have thrust our schools into fiscal instability.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer Cuts Experienced Education Reporter and Eliminates Full Time Education Beat

Late Friday afternoon, Advance Publications, the corporation that owns the Cleveland Plain Dealer, along with the separate newsroom at the cleveland.com website, finished purging the experienced beat reporters at the Plain Dealer. Patrick O’Donnell, the newspaper’s longtime education reporter, was one victim of the mass action. His loss will leave education policy, central to O’Donnell’s beat, to be covered by cleveland.com‘s statehouse reporters if education policy, primarily a children’s issue, rises to a level that will attract their attention.

Here is what has happened to the Plain Dealer in the past week.

The reporters at the Plain Dealer have long been unionized; the reporters at cleveland.com are non-unionized and less experienced. Everyone agrees that Advance Media used the pandemic-driven decline in advertising revenue as an excuse to break the union.

Covering this week’s staff reductions at the Plain Dealer as part of an article about the implications of the pandemic-driven collapse in advertising revenue across America’s newspapers, the NY TimesMark Tracy makes a careful distinction for Cleveland.  He points out:  “The near-collapse of this venerable Cleveland daily, owned by Advance Publications, coincided with the economic downturn.”  (Emphasis mine.)

The Cleveland Scene‘s Vince Grzegorek describes the two week purge at the Plain Dealer: “Fourteen Plain Dealer journalists were left after last Friday’s massive layoffs that saw 22 staffers depart. Those who remained were subjected, on the very next business day, to the cruelest and perhaps final installment of local union-busting by Advance Publications and the Newhouse family. They were told… that they could keep their jobs but not their beats, or even their geographic coverage areas. They would be dispatched to cover the hinterlands of Cleveland, not Cleveland itself.  Should they remain they would serve as a bureau covering Cuyahoga’s surrounding counties, but not Cuyahoga itself, and not so much of those counties that the news could be considered statewide in importance.”

After 10 reporters resigned on Friday, an editor brought in two weeks ago to accomplish the staff reductions, Tim Warsinskey spun the story: “Today, 10 of our reporters and photographers made the decision to voluntarily ask to be laid off. This comes a week after we regretfully parted ways with some (22) talented journalists… Over the years in any newsroom, there are waves of personnel changes. Folks who cover beats for decades move on. New and sometimes younger journalists step in and usually wind up surprising us all. ”

In a statement late Friday afternoon, the Plain Dealer News Guild contradicted the new editor’s spin: “Tim Warsinskey… said the 10 journalists leaving today made voluntary decisions to be laid off. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It was the Plain Dealer who decided to lay off these union workers.  The Plain Dealer and its out-of-state owners put dedicated and seasoned journalists in an impossible situation earlier this week in a blatant attempt to embarrass them by banning most of them from reporting on Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the state.  For many, that meant being kept from covering the topics they know best and in many cases are regarded locally and nationally as experts.”

Here’s why the loss of education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell, will matter to Northeast Ohio.

In 2016, Cleveland’s alternative paper, the Cleveland Scene named Patrick O’Donnell as that year’s best Cleveland news reporter: “O’Donnell has guided Clevelanders through the data-rigging by state superintendent Richard Ross of low-performing online charter schools. He’s also kept CMSD (Cleveland Municipal School District) CEO Eric Gordon on his toes, reporting on the botched collection of E-rate rebates. He’s a crisp, prolific writer and a dogged reporter. And, much like the PD’s Brie Zeltner and Rachel Dissell, who reported on lead poisoning, and Michelle Jarboe, who reports on real estate, O’Donnell represents the value of hard-hitting, in-depth beat reporting…”  (All of these reporters have now been purged from the Plain Dealer newsroom.)

O’Donnell has kept readers in Northeast Ohio well-informed about the fraught policy environment for the state’s public schools over recent decades when Ohio’s Republican-majority legislatures have expanded charter schools, instituted five different statewide voucher programs, and pursued standards-based, test-and-punish school accountability.

O’Donnell doggedly tracked the 18 year, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow scandal in which William Lager scammed the state by more than $1 billion by extravagantly inflating the enrollment numbers at his online school. O’Donnell drove a hundred miles to Toledo in January of 2018 to the meeting where ECOT’s sponsor, The Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West formally shut down the school.  O’Donnell broke the story before any other reporter tracked down the news.

And in the months after the notorious ECOT was shut down, O’Donnell covered the legal efforts by the state to recover some of the money.  He described, for example, an Ohio Supreme Court hearing in which the state charged that masses of so-called ECOT students were never logging in to the school’s website. ECOT’s attorney Marion Little “claimed that it should be paid by its enrollment, not by how long students spend in their online classes… Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor had pressed Little, after he argued that state law requires the school to be paid regardless of how little time students spend online. ‘How is that not absurd?’ O’Connor asked.”

In 2014, economist Margaret (Macke) Raymond, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and wife of prominent, far-right economist Eric Hanushek, stunned the audience at the Cleveland City Club by confessing that marketplace choice doesn’t really work in education, O’Donnell was there to cover it: “Her reasons for why states need to exert more control raised a few eyebrows. A self-described supporter of free markets, Raymond said a totally free market is not appropriate for schools. ‘It’s the only industry/sector where the market doesn’t work…Parent’s can’t be agents of qualify assurance.'”

In June of 2015, O’Donnell punctured Ohio’s claim that the state was cracking down on some of its charter school sponsoring agencies, which had been known for years for their lax oversight: “It turns out that Ohio’s grand plan to stop the national ridicule of its charter school system is giving overseers of many of the lowest-performing schools a pass from taking heat for some of their worst problems.”

Later that summer, he extensively covered the Legislature’s surreptitious takeover of the Youngstown City Schools, a move made without hearings in the middle of the night.  O’Donnell has also exposed the Plain Dealer‘s readers to research demonstrating that the theory of school district failure—on which the state takeovers are based—is itself flawed: “State test scores continue to rise right along with a school district’s affluence, and fall as poverty rates increase.”

And in the past two months, as the Ohio Legislature has refused to address the secretive expansion in last summer’s budget bill of EdChoice, a private school tuition voucher program, O’Donnell has reported on the confusing implications as school districts are being forced to pass school levies just to pay for private school vouchers.  EdChoice vouchers are funded not by the state but instead out of local school district budgets. As the pandemic shut down the state and legislators determined merely to freeze the program, as it is currently operating, for another year, O’Donnell explained:  “For public school teachers, school boards and school officials, keeping the status quo on vouchers continues a drain on school district budgets… School districts… which saw a large increase in voucher use this school year, will have no relief….Their costs could even increase….”

It is devastating when a newspaper rids itself of a reporter like Patrick O’Donnell, whose background includes in-depth knowledge about complex public policy. And it isn’t just the purging of a more expensive unionized reporter. The Plain Dealer, it appears, is entirely eliminating education as a specialized beat. The change will leave Northeast Ohio less informed. Education policy is nuanced and politically fraught. Expert and experienced education reporters matter.

Ohio Legislature Allows Continued Growth of EdChoice Vouchers in Schools Where EdChoice Now Operates

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, herehereherehere, here, and here.

Is the Ohio Senate Intent on Running Out the Clock to Enable Vast Voucher Expansion on April 1?

Yesterday a member of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board, Thomas Suddes commented on problems in the Ohio Legislature, but he wasn’t describing merely the delays imposed by the coronavirus, which has stopped the Legislature from meeting and eliminated in-person deliberation and voting. The headline on Suddes’ column in the print edition of the newspaper says: “A Crisis Brings to Light Where Legislature Has Come Up Short.”

Suddes’ column emphasizes Ohio’s current constitutional dilemma.  Last week, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Governor delayed the primary election, but House Speaker Larry Householder believes: “Legal authority to change the date rests with the Ohio General Assembly—not the courts and not via executive fiat.”  In Ohio, legislators are not permitted to vote except in person, which means that Householder is pushing to have the legislators come into a short session, despite the danger of viral transmission during an in-person meeting, just to set a date for the primary election. But scheduling the primary election is not the only matter unresolved by the Ohio Legislature.

Suddes reminds readers that legislative dysfunction has affected a number of other important matters including public education policy: “As for rescheduling the primary, it’d be easier to have confidence in the General Assembly if it would stop yammering and start legislating. For instance, if you haven’t heard from your school superintendent about the financial mess your district faces thanks to Ohio’s school voucher circus, you haven’t been listening. Legislation to address that is stalled in the legislature”

Here is a short summary of the Legislature’s failure on EdChoice vouchers, a debacle which has created a crisis for Ohio’s school districts and left the Ohio Legislature blocked.  It is a disagreement among Ohio Republicans who dominate both legislative chambers.  Last summer in the final hours of the biennial budget conference committee, someone introduced an amendment to explode the number of EdChoice vouchers to be awarded by the state to students to pay for private school tuition.  EdChoice vouchers are awarded to students in the attendance zones of public schools the state deems failing (EdChoice Designated schools) in one of several categories on a state report card, but nearly everyone agrees that the report card algorithms grossly overstate the faults of Ohio’s public schools. Due to the voucher expansion inserted surreptitiously into the state budget, 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 unless the Legislature stops the voucher expansion. The Legislature was supposed to address the problem by February 1, 2020, but it awarded itself a two month extension until April 1, 2020—a little more than a week from today.

The problem is complicated by other changes the Legislature made in the budget. While previously a student must have been enrolled in a public school in order to qualify to take a voucher from that school district, now any high school student living in the zone of a Designated EdChoice school can qualify for a voucher, even if that student has never attended the public school in question. This year thousands of high school students who have always attended private and religious schools qualified for a voucher to pay their private school tuition. That number will grow rapidly unless the Legislature stops the massive voucher expansion that will go into effect on April 1, 2020.

There is another special problem with the EdChoice vouchers in Ohio. They are funded by a school district deduction; they are not paid for out of the state budget.  Because of the way the Ohio school funding formula works, in a lot of school districts, the vouchers—$4,650 for each K-8 student and $6,000 for each high school student—are worth more than the state aid for that student.  And to make matters worse, in the same state budget that expanded the vouchers, the Legislature froze state formula aid to school districts at the 2019 level: School districts, now required to award vouchers to thousands of students who have never been enrolled in their school districts, are getting no state per-pupil dollars to cover even part of those students’ vouchers. And once a student has a voucher, he or she is entitled to keep the voucher every year, paid for by the local school district, until the student graduates.

(For a more detailed explanation of the Ohio EdChoice voucher crisis, see here, here, here, here, and here.)

The Ohio House and the Ohio Senate each passed its own plan to mitigate the explosive growth for next school year in the EdChoice voucher program, but the Senate summarily rejected the Ohio House’s plan.  A conference committee met for 10 sessions and heard testimony on the matter from 400 citizens—some representing public school districts facing budgetary collapse, and some representing voucher advocates and private school representatives expecting to enroll more students carrying vouchers.  Then legislative negotiations seemed to die.  All reports suggest there is an impasse.

On March 14, just prior to the now cancelled primary election in which a number of Ohio school districts had property tax levies on the ballot for the purpose of paying for the state-mandated voucher expansion that the state has chosen not to pay for, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell focused on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights proposed levy to raise local taxes by $8 million to cover the district’s $7.1 million voucher costs. Of the state’s 610 school districts, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district is hit the hardest by the expansion of vouchers this year, although O’Donnell covers other school districts in the Cleveland metropolitan area with levies on the ballot to pay for the costs. (All of those levy campaigns are currently unresolved due to the delay of the 2020 Ohio Primary Election.)

O’Donnell highlights a shocking reality: When the Legislature inserted explosive voucher growth as a last minute budget amendment, nobody tabulated the aggregate cost to the state’s 610 local school districts of the voucher expansion paid for by the local school district deduction. O’Donnell reports that State. Rep. Don Jones, currently the chair of the House Education Committee, now says that the state of Ohio cannot possibly afford fully to absorb what appears to be an enormous expense: “(T)he state legislature remains deadlocked over which students will be eligible for vouchers… and who should pay for it, the state or local districts.  Six weeks after giving themselves 60 days to find a resolution, the Ohio House and Senate still have competing proposals, but aren’t meeting to find a compromise. They don’t even have key financial data… a clear accounting of how much vouchers are costing the state and districts this year, or any projections of what the different House and Senate plans would cost in the future… State Rep. Don Jones, chairman of the House Education Committee… also chairman of the joint House and Senate committee that is trying to find a voucher compromise (explains): ‘I don’t like the fact that we’ve got schools like Cleveland Heights (which is) losing $7 million,’ Jones said.  But he cautioned: ‘If I could pick up all those districts… the state would be taking on a huge responsibility. They’re going to be on the books for those kids until they leave in 8th grade or until they graduate.'”

The Ohio Senate’s original plan would more modestly have prevented the voucher increase for next year from growing to all the way to 1,200 and would have frozen the number of EdChoice vouchers available while a legislative committee was established to study problems with the state report cards which determine the state performance ratings by which public schools are designated for EdChoice. But it is known that key state senators are intent on growing the voucher program no matter what.

The Ohio House plan, passed in early February and immediately rejected by the Ohio Senate, would offer at least partial protection for Ohio’s public school districts. The House plan would phase out the current EdChoice Vouchers; end the awarding of vouchers based on the state school district report card; phase out the school district deduction method of funding; and award 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 (and their siblings) would continue to have their vouchers paid for by a school district deduction. The proposed House plan, therefore, would leave a significant—but much reduced— burden on local school districts already losing a large amount of local school district funding to the EdChoice program. The Ohio House plan, while imperfect, goes a long way to protecting the rights of Ohio’s 1,660,354 public school students to a public school education.

Public school districts losing millions of dollars to vouchers inevitably must increase class sizes; reduce essential staff who work with students—counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses; cut curricular enrichments like school newspapers, music, drama and the visual arts; and eliminate sports programs. The Ohio Constitution requires the state to provide a thorough and efficient system of public schools; it does not promise that the state will use tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. Despite the coronavirus, the Ohio Legislature needs to come back into session this week to protect the state’s public schools by preventing the vast expansion—scheduled to take place on April 1, 2020—of EdChoice vouchers. And the members of the Legislature ought to consider their constitutional responsibility for public education by passing at least the essential components of the House plan: The Legislature needs to stop basing vouchers on the state report cards and to phase out the school district deduction by funding new vouchers through the state budget. Districts whose budgets were gouged during the current school year by explosive growth in EdChoice vouchers also need retroactive assistance.

Unless Ohio’s legislators find a way this week to address the EdChoice voucher crisis, one has to assume that the pro-voucher ideologues in the Ohio Senate intend to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to allow—on April 1, 2020— the total number of Ohio’s EdChoice Designated public schools to grow to 1,200.

With Voucher Impasse, Ohio Legislature Abrogates It’s Constitutional Responsibility for Our Public Schools

Ohio’s House and Senate are stuck. They even seem to have stopped arguing about their two different plans to end a public school crisis caused by the surreptitious expansion last summer (in the conference committee on the state budget) of the EdChoice school voucher program. On February 1st, students were due to have begun registering for a whole new round of vouchers for next year, with eligibility expanded to a whole new group of students, but in late January the Senate created one plan to reshape the program and the House designed another plan. The Legislature gave itself two months—until April 1— to work out the differences. But here we are in mid-March without any progress toward a compromise.  And neither plan would really do what is necessary to support the school districts the state legislature has trapped in this crisis.

When Ohio state senators describe the problem, they seem to forget about the 1,660,354 students enrolled in the state’s public schools. The senators’ comments betray their sympathy with parents who would like an EdChoice voucher to pay for tuition at a private or religious school.  “Why should these parents have to wait until the first of April to begin applying?” ask the state senators. “Why should they be left without being able to make plans?”  Ohio’s state senators justify their support of vouchers with a “money should follow the child” theory consistent with Betsy DeVos’s contention that we need to worry about each child and each family and cease focusing on the system.

Bruce Baker, the Rutgers University school finance expert, explains the central flaw in this sort of thinking: “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim… falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choice are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions.  We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations. The tax dollars collected belong to (are governed or controlled by) the democratically governed community (local, state, federal) that established the policies for collecting those tax dollars, which are to be distributed according to the… preferred goods and services… of that community within the constraints of the law.  Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now.  Those dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding, often with long-term debt… do not belong exclusively to those parents.”  (Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, p. 30)

Maybe it is easier for the members of Ohio’s legislature not to worry so much about the current crisis across the state’s school districts because In Ohio, the EdChoice voucher program at the center of the massive voucher mess is not funded directly by the state. Conveniently the Legislature created a school district deduction, and school districts, which have already watched money flow out of their schools this year are faced with catastrophic local budget losses if the program expands on April 1.  If the Legislature does nothing, the EdChoice vouchers will multiply in a way that will deplete the local budgets of two-thirds of Ohio’s 610 school districts. Inequity will also become a more serious problem, because the districts hurt the worst are the ones that serve many of the state’s poorest children.

Bruce Baker is a national school finance expert.  Howard Fleeter, a respected Columbus school funding expert who leads the Ohio Education Policy Institute, is extremely concerned about the implications of vouchers in our state.  In January, Fleeter reviewed changes in the EdChoice voucher program and wrote the clearest explanation I’ve read of a very confusing set of issues.  Fleeter writes On the Money, a regular (but paywalled) report for the Columbus Hannah News Service. Recently the Delphos School District reposted Fleeter’s January report on the potential implications of the EdChoice voucher expansion where we can all read it. While Fleeter’s report is now two months old, not a thing has changed as the Ohio Legislature argues, dithers, and delays, despite ten long formal hearings where legislators heard testimony from 400 concerned citizens.

The EdChoice program has grown rapidly—from 3,100 students in 2006 to nearly 30,000 this school year.  Fleeter explains that the EdChoice voucher program counts voucher students as though they are enrolled in their assigned local neighborhood school. Then, the full voucher amount ($4,650 for each student in grades K-8 and $6,000 for each high school student) is deducted from the state aid that the district is slated to receive and turned into a voucher to pay private school tuition: “The deduction funding method has engendered frequent complaints… because the state aid received by the district as a result of including a voucher student is typically less than the amount that is deducted.”  Fleeter adds that during this school year, the deduction method of funding EdChoice vouchers has become particularly threatening for school districts under the biennial budget passed last summer because the budget froze state aid for schools at last year’s amount:  “As a result, any increase in the number of voucher students in FY20 or FY21 as compared to FY 19 means that the district will simply lose the entire additional voucher deduction amount. Thus, school districts that experience an increase in voucher use by resident students in FY 20 are not really guaranteed FY19 funding levels as HB166 (the budget bill) intended.”

Fleeter identifies two additional problems that have driven the catastrophic voucher crisis across Ohio’s school districts this winter.

EdChoice vouchers were supposedly created to give students an escape if they attend a so-called “failing” school.  The first problem with the EdChoice vouchers is that the Legislature has changed the criteria for designating an underperforming school. To qualify for an EdChoice voucher, a student must live in the attendance zone of a school deemed “underperforming” by the state. That number has rapidly grown from 255 schools last school year, to 517 this school year. Next year, if the Legislature does nothing by April 1, 2020, over 1,200 buildings will be EdChoice Designated Schools.

Fleeter explains that all this is based on having just one “failing” state report card grade during a three year period in any of a number of state report card rating categories.  The state report card ratings are based on convoluted algorithms and their validity questionable.  Here are the ratings that determine EdChoice designation—a D or F grade Overall—an F in Value-Added—a Performance Index in the bottom 10 percent of buildings—a four-year graduation rate of D or F—a K-3 Literacy Grade of D or F—or the building is under an Academic Distress Commission.  “(A) building is now EdChoice eligible if it meets any one of the above listed criteria… (T)he inclusion of the K-3 Literacy criteria is… problematic because this measure is widely considered to be seriously flawed.”   And the state has complicated the qualification criteria further by leaving out data from school years 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, because a new standardized test had been introduced.  This year schools are being judged on grades the state awarded in the 2013-14, 2017-18, and 2018-19 school years.  Fleeter argues: “The use of data that is 6 years out-of-date is by itself inappropriate…. (It) also means that any improvement shown by districts as they adjusted to the new assessments is also not considered.”

Second, the budget passed last summer radically expanded the number of students eligible to qualify for a voucher. Fleeter explains that before this school year, “(T)he EdChoice voucher program has required that in order to qualify for a voucher the student must have attended an EdChoice eligible public school in the preceding year… (T)he only exception… has been for Kindergarten students for whom Kindergarten is (obviously) their first year in school… However, beginning (this school year), high school students who have never attended a public school are now eligible to receive a voucher to attend a private high school.” In one school year, the number of applications by high school students for an EdChoice Voucher has grown by 75 percent. “Not only has the elimination of the requirement that high school students had to have been in a qualifying public school in the prior year resulted in an increase in EdChoice vouchers, it is providing these vouchers to families who already have their children in private schools… This is not expansion of educational choice to those without the means to exercise it themselves; it is merely a handout to families who have already shown they can do it themselves.” (emphasis in the original)

Fleeter summarizes: “Due to ill-considered changes to the criteria for designating schools as ‘underperforming,’ an unprecedented change in the eligibility criteria for private high school students that undermines the only defensible argument of the EdChoice program itself, and an apparent failure to understand the impact of freezing the school funding formula in the current biennium, Ohio policymakers have created a situation where two thirds of the state’s districts and schools… stand to be EdChoice eligible… (next school year) and the districts themselves—rather than the state—will be left paying for these modifications.”

Fleeter grew up in the same school district where I currently live and where my children were educated—the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools— an inner-ring suburban school district in Cleveland.  In the report, Fleeter cites the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Schools as an example of the EdChoice Voucher crisis this year: “The total number of voucher applications in Cleveland Heights increased from 890 in FY 19 (last school year) to 1414 in FY 20 (this school year). Sixty-five percent of these applications were high school students.  However, virtually all of these students (both K-8 and high school) attend… religiously affiliated schools…. Very few—if any—of these students have ever attended one of the public schools in this school district….”

Next Tuesday, in the March 17, Ohio primary election, the citizens of Cleveland Heights and University Heights will vote on a local school levy.  In January at a public meeting, members of the school board explained the necessity of putting a local property tax levy on the ballot at this time: “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. In fact, the District would not need to ask for a levy until 2023 if it weren’t for the way EdChoice was funded, and the millage would be significantly less.”

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school levy is on the ballot to pay for vouchers for a few and to try to protect services for the many—the 5,136 students enrolled in our community’s public schools. The levy committee’s literature explains that if the levy fails, the “Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools will be forced to make drastic cuts to offset lost state funding, which could include: closing school buildings, increasing student/teacher ratio, decreasing 1-on-1 instruction, canceling proven programs, and limiting sports, arts, music and transportation. These cuts will hurt every student in every classroom.”

Ohio’s Budget Bill Multiplies School Vouchers, Leaves Local School Districts in Crisis

On Tuesday afternoon, I went to a meeting of my monthly book discussion group—all of us retired and over 70.  But as we sat down with our coffee and before we discussed the book we had all been reading for the month, we found ourselves distracted by the topic that is tearing our community apart: the changes the Ohio Legislature made last summer in the fine print of the FY 20-21 state budget—changes that exploded the size of the state’s EdChoice school voucher program.

I wonder whether legislators have any real understanding of the collateral damage for particular communities from policies enacted without debate. Maybe, because our community has worked for fifty years to be a stable, racially and economically diverse community with emphasis on fair housing enforcement and integrated schools, legislators just write us off as another failed urban school district. After all, Ohio’s education policy emphasizes state takeover and privatization instead of equitable school funding. The state punishes instead of helping all but its most affluent, outer ring, exurban, “A”-rated school districts, where property values are high enough that state funding is not a worry.

What this year’s EdChoice voucher expansion means for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district where the members of my book discussion group all live is that—just to pay for the new vouchers—our school district has been forced to put a property tax levy on the March 17 primary election ballot. Ohio’s school finance expert, Howard Fleeter explains that in our school district, EdChoice voucher use has grown by 478 percent in a single year.  Fleeter continues: “Cleveland Heights isn’t losing any students…. They are just losing money.’” “If this doesn’t get unwound, I think it is significant enough in terms of the impact on the money schools get to undermine any new funding formula.”

Ohio deducts the price of the vouchers students carry to private and religious schools from the local school district budget even though, in the case of Cleveland Heights-University Heights this year, 94 percent of those students have never attended the public schools in our district. The state counts the voucher students who live in our community as though they are enrolled in our school district and then deducts the voucher from the local school budget, but the cost of each voucher is more than the state allocates per pupil.  In fact, in the current Ohio biennial FY20-21 state budget, state public education basic aid funding is frozen, which means our district actually gets no new state funding for each voucher student, but one hundred percent the cost of each voucher is deducted anyway.

Why are the people in my book group so upset about the voucher explosion and another levy on the ballot in March?  We are not a bunch of old ladies grousing about the burden of our taxes.  Two of us co-chaired a successful school levy campaign back in 1993; one person served on the board of education; and the rest were teachers in our school district. As we read the conversation threads on Next Door, where people are accusing our district of mismanaging funds, or paying teachers too much, or hiring too many school psychologists, we worry about all the undocumented misinformation floating around. Members of our group are anxious about our grandchildren and our neighbors’ children who depend on the public schools we have spent our lives supporting and protecting.  But it is difficult to explain what happened in the budget, our plight this winter set in motion last June and July in the budget conference committee, when amendments were added to the state budget without debate. It was done so quietly at the time that people across the state only began to grasp the impact later in August when the Ohio Association of School Business Officials alerted school treasurers about the potential impact.

Fortunately the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District sponsored a special public meeting on January 9, 2020, to explain the changes in the EdChoice Voucher Program and begin quelling the anxiety that is tearing our community apart. The school district has posted the powerpoint presentation from the meeting, and at the meeting,  the school district distributed a clear, factual brochure about the legislature’s changes in the EdChoice Vouchers.  The brochure explains: “(T)he program was expanded to the point of unsustainability. Ohio had fewer than 300 buildings deemed eligible for vouchers in 2018-2019; that number has exploded to 1,200 for 2020-2021. When the Ohio General Assembly passed its biennial budget in July 2019, it froze receipts at 2018-2019 levels. This means that for every new voucher used, none of the cost would be offset by state aid. Legislators also removed the provision that required students to attend a public school prior to using the voucher. Unable to prepare financially for the change, the District was forced the following month to negotiate one-year contracts with the teachers union, as opposed to multi-year contracts. 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.” Each time a student secures an EdChoice Voucher, that student can keep the voucher, paid for by the school district deduction, every year until the student graduates from high school.

The school district’s information handout continues: “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. In fact, the District would not need to ask for a levy until 2023 if it weren’t for the way EdChoice was funded, and the millage would be significantly less.”

School districts across Ohio are demanding that the Legislature do something about what has become a crisis for many school districts. It is important that the Legislature act quickly, before the February EdChoice Voucher enrollment period for next school year. The Heights Coalition for Public Education, a community organization, has prepared a list of short-term voucher fixes which the Legislature should consider:

  1. “Remove budget language from House Bill 166 (the current state budget) expanding vouchers in grades 7-8 and for high schools.  Restore voucher language to pre-budget language.”
  2. Limit state report card ratings on which EdChoice schools are designated to 2017-18 and 2018-19.  Currently districts are held accountable all the way back to 2013-14, and considerable changes in school programming have occurred in the seven ensuing years.
  3. “Restore funding for school districts that have lost funds to voucher students who were not part of their 2019 Average Daily Enrollment.”
  4. “Cut the loss of funds for high poverty (50% economically disadvantage) districts at 5% and other school districts at 10%.”
  5. Adopt the funding methodology for EdChoice Expansion (another Ohio voucher program) which awards vouchers to needy students and pays for the vouchers fully with state funds (not the school district deduction).

State Senator Matt Huffman has long been among the Ohio Legislature’s strongest proponents of school vouchers.  Earlier this week, the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reported that Senator Huffman himself supports the fifth voucher fix listed above: “State Sen. Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, wants a bigger change. He is resurrecting his 2017 proposal to offer vouchers to any family in Ohio whose income falls under certain limits… His proposal would have the state, not districts, pay for the vouchers of $4,650 for grades K-8 and the $6,000 a year for high school. That would eliminate many district complaints that voucher costs are killing their budgets.  He said the state can control costs by limiting how many students can use vouchers in a given year. Some extra money is already available in the budget, he said. ‘That seems to be the only way, really, to do this in a fair way,’ he added.”

There is reason for caution here, even though Huffman’s assessment is correct that eliminating the school district deduction method for funding vouchers is the only fair way to address what has become an urgent crisis for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools and for many other Ohio school districts. We all remember Naomi Klein’s 2007 warning about the danger of adopting “shock doctrine,” privatization policies in a hurry in the midst of a crisis. We need to be sure that any so-called fix isn’t just an opportunity for the Legislature to grow the state’s voucher programs in some other way.  After all, in the case of Ohio’s current voucher mess, the Ohio Legislature itself created the crisis by expanding school privatization with explosive growth in the EdChoice school district deduction.

This blog has emphatically and consistently opposed private school tuition vouchers paid for with public funds, because vouchers undermine public funding for public education. Education privatization is never in the public interest.

However, currently in Ohio, an existential crisis for local school districts demands an immediate solution. The Legislature has saddled school districts with a school privatization program whose size the Legislature has no incentive to control because the money quietly washes out of local school district budgets. Neither can school districts control what is happening to their local budgets when the Legislature has set up an uncontrollable flow of dollars into the vouchers.

Huffman’s proposed solution would not solve the bigger problem of Ohio school vouchers. On the other hand, Huffman’s plan would pay for the vouchers out of the state budget, and as he points out, if it were to be so inclined, the Legislature could control costs by limiting how many students can use vouchers in a given year. Huffman’s idea would address the immediate school district financial crisis. It would then be up to all of us to pressure the Legislature to control the size and number of Ohio school vouchers awarded each year. Perhaps we can motivate a future legislature to eliminate vouchers entirely and return to a system where public dollars serve the mass of our children in the public schools.

If you are looking for the facts about Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers, here are some resources:

You can watch the video of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District’s recent meeting (January 9, 2020) to explain the alarming, rising cost of EdChoice Vouchers for the school district due to changes in the FY 20-21 state budget passed last summer.

The Heights Coalition for Public Education has  created materials to explain the impact of EdChoice on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School district. You can access them in a number of formats:  Slideshow (PDF); Slideshow (Powerpoint); Narration only for slideshow (PDF); Slides and narration (PDF); Video of slideshow with commentary (Youtube); and Handout for slideshow (PDF).

Vouchers: Should States Be Subsidizing Private Education at a Steep Cost to Public Schools?

Wisconsin and Ohio were the pioneers, the states which launched school vouchers—public tax dollars covering private school tuition.  Wisconsin launched Milwaukee vouchers in 1990, and Ohio followed suit in 1996 with a Cleveland voucher program.

What are the problems with the idea of vouchers?

Vouchers have always been endorsed by their proponents as providing an escape for promising students from so-called “failing” public schools—as measured by test scores.  But research demonstrates (see here and here) that test scores correlate not with school quality but instead with the aggregate income of the neighborhoods where public schools are located and the families who live there.  Research demonstrates that ameliorating student poverty would more directly address students’ needs.

The idea that vouchers help students academically hasn’t held up either.  A study by the pro-voucher Thomas Fordham Institute demonstrates that in Ohio, voucher students regularly fall behind their public school counterparts.  But proponents of school privatization (including the Thomas Fordham Institute itself) regularly ignore the evidence.

In a recent summary published in The Nation, Jennifer Berkshire explains that while there is a lack of empirical evidence justifying vouchers, their proponents support them ideologically: “But the GOP’s true policy aim these days is much more ambitious: private school vouchers for all. In Ohio, students in two-thirds of the state’s school districts are now eligible for vouchers, a ballooning program that is on track to cost taxpayers $350 million by the end of the school year. And in Florida, school vouchers are now being offered to middle-class students, the latest gambit by conservatives in their effort to redefine public education as anything parents want to spend taxpayer money on. ‘For me, if the taxpayer is paying for the education, it’s public education,’ Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis proclaimed earlier this year.”

In Ohio, based on state report card grades which legislators from both parties seem to agree are deeply flawed, vouchers are now to be awarded to students in so-called ‘under-performing’ schools in 400 of the state’s 610 school districts. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver explains, “(T)he legislature has widened the definition of a low-performing school to the point of absurdity, expanding the list of districts with ‘under-performing’ schools from 40 in the fall of 2018, to 139 in 2019, and around 400—nearly two-thirds of all districts in the state—by 2020.”

And EdChoice, one of the Ohio’s four statewide voucher programs, takes the money through the deduction method, counting the voucher student as enrolled in the local school and then extracting $4,650 for each elementary school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher right out of the public school district’s budget. But a serious problem arises because in Ohio, state funding is allocated at different rates from school district to school district, and in many cases the vouchers extract more dollars per pupil from the local school budget than the state awards to that district in per pupil state aid.

This year’s state budget brought a new threat to public schools via an amendment quietly added and never debated. Until this year, to qualify for a voucher, an Ohio student must have been enrolled in the public school in the year previous to applying for the voucher.  But, secreted into the state budget last summer was an amendment providing that high school students may now receive a voucher even if they have never been enrolled in a public school.

Finally there is the problem that, due to years of tax cuts, school funding for a mass of Ohio school districts is capped.  Even though these districts are subsidizing an increasing number of vouchers for students who have never been enrolled in public schools, the school districts are not receiving annual increases in state aid to cover those students’ vouchers.

Staver interviews Howard Fleeter, the state’s school finance policy expert: “What’s happened, Fleeter said, is that parents who have always sent their kids to private school applied for these vouchers, which are funded by the public schools. ‘They never would send their kids to a public school, and now they are getting a voucher… You’re just giving them a handout.’  In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district where Fleeter grew up, the number of applications for high school vouchers increased by 478% in a single year…. And its total voucher bill went up by about $3 million. ‘Cleveland Heights isn’t losing any students…. They are just losing money.'”  Fleeter continues: “If this doesn’t get unwound, I think it is significant enough in terms of the impact on the money schools get to undermine any new funding formula.”

The battle about vouchers in Wisconsin has significant elements in common with Ohio’s voucher fight. But Ohio is an all-Republican state—House, Senate, Governor—while Wisconsin now has a  Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who, as the former Superintendent of Public Instruction, deeply understands the funding crisis in the state’s public schools. Despite the Republican Wisconsin Legislature’s antagonism to Evers’ proposals, he promises to present the public with the fiscal realities for public schools posed by his state’s ever expanding school vouchers.

In a recent interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, Evers explains how he plans to reframe the voucher issue to present the fiscal impact of privatized vouchers on Wisconsin’s public schools: “Asked about the problem of draining funds from already-strapped public schools, he starts with a no-brainer—the effort to inform taxpayers exactly how much they are paying for the voucher expansion, just as public-school funding and other services are broken out on property-tax bills. ‘I certainly support any legislation to make it more transparent… I mean, people should know where their tax dollars are going.'” “For the last several years, he points out, a lot of the kids who are getting school vouchers are those who were already in private school. ‘So it’s less of a choice and more about subsidizing a separate system… Now we need to have a discussion about that…. whether the public at large agrees that we should be subsidizing parochial education…  That’s never been asked… It’s always been asked, ‘Should people have the opportunity to have the same choice that wealthier people do?’ That’s a reasonable thing to discuss.  But if the discussion is, should we subsidize private education? Is that right? That’s never been discussed. Never. We should talk about that.'”

What is rarely mentioned in the voucher debates is that no state legislature creating a voucher program has added a new tax to pay for it.  Instead the money always comes out of the coffers of the state education budget and, as in Ohio today, out of local school district budgets.

Ohio Burdens Public School Districts with Huge Unfunded Voucher Mandate at the Expense of Public School Students

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.

Ohio Voucher Promoters Mislead: EdChoice Vouchers Eat Up Local Dollars and Ruin District Budgets

On Tuesday evening,  the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the American Federation for Children—the group affiliated through the years with Betsy DeVos—sponsored a meeting at my local public library, where the speaker, representing School Choice Ohio, promoted Ohio’s taxpayer-funded, EdChoice school vouchers.

Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers are available to students living in the attendance zones of what are considered “failing” schools.  Ohio is emerging from a three year “safe harbor” period following a change in the high stakes test by which Ohio judges school quality. Next fall, the number of EdChoice voucher-eligible, so called “failing” schools will double—to 475 across the state—reports Patrick O’Donnell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The list of local public schools whose students will be able to qualify for the vouchers next fall is nearly 12 pages long and includes a mass of schools in every big city and a growing number of the state’s inner-ring suburbs. (Cleveland schools do not appear on this list, because the state maintains a separate voucher program in Cleveland.)

The meeting on Tuesday night at the Cleveland Heights Main Library offered coffee and donuts along with several packets about the voucher program and information for prospective voucher parents about School Choice Ohio’s counseling services to help parents qualify for a voucher.  Alyson Miles was Tuesday’s primary speaker.  She is not currently listed on the staff of School Choice Ohio but appears instead as the Deputy Director of Government Affairs at the Ohio office of the American Federation for Children.  She is also, according to the website of School Choice Ohio, one of the three members of  School Choice Ohio’s board of directors.  The other board members are Rabbi Yitz Frank, the Ohio Director of Agudath Israel of America in Cleveland Ohio, and Ann Riddle, Executive Director of the Northwest Ohio Scholarship Fund, located in Sylvania, Ohio—a suburb of Toledo.

In Ohio, to qualify for an EdChoice Voucher, students must have been enrolled previously in a public school unless they are entering Kindergarten. Once a Kindergartner receives a voucher, the student can keep it for twelve years of schooling as long as he or she reapplies every year.

Tuesday’s speaker, Alyson Miles emphasized an odd quirk of Ohio’s law: Students moving to Ohio—families new to the state—can qualify for an EdChoice Voucher without ever having been enrolled in an Ohio public school as long as they move to the attendance zone of one of the qualifying “failing” schools.

Miles provided mistaken information to those in attendance on Tuesday night in one respect.  She repeatedly insisted that vouchers in Ohio are entirely made up of state dollars allocated by the Legislature for that specific purpose.  After she was questioned, Miles repeatedly explained that the vouchers do not drain locally voted school levy dollars out of any school district’s budget.

Miles is wrong.   In many Ohio school districts, an EdChoice voucher—worth $4,650 per K-8 student and $6,000 per high school student—is more than the amount of state per-pupil funding allocated to the school district by the state funding formula. School districts must make up the difference out of locally voted levy dollars.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid. This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.” (Emphasis is mine.)

The amount of dollars carried away from a local school district can be substantial—especially as Kindergarten classes matriculate through the grades.  In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, where Tuesday’s meeting was held, the amount lost to the public schools has been growing by about a million dollars a year—from $1,237,990 in FY16 to $2,256,017 in FY17 to $3,214,454 in FY 18.

Recently in the Washington Post, the director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explained: “Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement.  A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities…  Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Ohio’s theft of money for vouchers and charters right out of school district budgets punishes the state’s most vulnerable school districts and leaves wealthy exurban districts largely untouched.