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.

Schools Serving Very Poor Children Need Financial Assistance. Instead Ohio Beats Them Up.

Ohio operates a test-and-punish accountability scheme that ranks and rates schools and school districts, and punishes school districts whose scores are low.  All the while, the state has diminished its effort to support public education and equalize funding.

In mid-September, for example, the state released school report cards awarding schools and school districts letter grades—“A” through “F.”  Like two other districts recently taken over by the state after receiving a series of “F” grades, East Cleveland will be seized by the state and assigned a state-appointed overseer CEO to replace its school superintendent and an appointed commission to replace the local school board.  East Cleveland—an economically and racially segregated inner-ring Cleveland suburban school district—is among Ohio’s very poorest.  Historically the residents in the community have voted high millage relative to their incomes to pay for their public schools despite the closure of local industry and the collapse of the economy.  The school districts in two other impoverished communities, Youngstown and Lorain, were taken over in recent years without a subsequent rise in test scores, the state’s chosen metric. Both received “F” grades again this year. The implementation of state takeover has been insensitive and insulting. Ohio’s Plunderbund reported in March that Krish Mohip, the state overseer CEO in Youngstown, feels he cannot safely move his family to the community where he is in charge of the public schools. He has also been openly interviewing for other jobs. Lorain’s CEO, David Hardy tried to donate the amount of what would be the property taxes on a Lorain house to the school district, when he announced that he does not intend to bring his family to live in Lorain.

EdChoice vouchers are a second high stakes punishment in the school attendance zones of “F”-rated schools. EdChoice gives families the opportunity to opt their children out of “failing” public schools by granting their children a chance to leave at public expense.  Writing for the Heights Observer, Susan Kaeser describes how this works in another Cleveland inner-ring suburban school district: “Access to EdChoice vouchers is tied to Ohio’s deeply flawed education accountability system.  If the aggregate test score data for an individual public school falls short, the school is defined as an EdChoice school.  Anyone residing in the attendance area of that school who could have attended that school is eligible for an EdChoice voucher… Nearly every district that has EdChoice designation serves many high-need students.”

Most students using EdChoice vouchers in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District which Kaeser describes are attending religious schools, and in fact real estate companies have been marketing houses in the state-designated neighborhoods as qualifying for EdChoice vouchers. Children can qualify for one of these vouchers as Kindergartners, without ever attending or intending to enroll in the public school that anchors the neighborhood. As Kaeser explains, “Once a student receives a voucher it can be renewed until the student graduates… Voucher use has grown exponentially as more schools were designated EdChoice and as recipients renew their vouchers.  This year, 176 Kindergarten students received first-time vouchers (without previously enrolling in a public school), adding to the total of more than 650 recipients.  The expected loss to the CH-UH district this year from EdChoice is $3.7 million….”  The rapid expansion of this program is fiscally unsustainable.

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 tracks the impact statewide of Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers. Over the ten years since the program’s inception, it has grown from 3,100 to 22,153 students.  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.”  While in FY 2007, $10,368,839 was spent statewide for EdChoice vouchers.  By FY 2017, the amount statewide had climbed to $102,688,259.  Over the decade, a total of $649,158,483 of state and local tax dollars was diverted from public schools to private school tuition through EdChoice vouchers.

All of Ohio’s school districts where students qualify for EdChoice vouchers are districts serving very poor children. And yet, last month in a new report Howard Fleeter explains: “(R)esidential taxpayers in the low wealth districts are paying taxes at nearly the same rate as are their higher wealth counterparts… The Tax Effort measure shows that when ability to pay is taken into account, the low wealth districts are levying taxes at the highest rate relative to their income, while the highest wealth districts are levying taxes at the lowest rate relative to income.”  Fleeter continues: “(T)he lowest wealth… districts have seen their share of total state and local resources fall from 26.4% in FY99 to 23.1% in FY19, while the highest wealth… school districts have seen their share of total state and local resources increase from 22.2% in FY99 to 23.4% in FY19.  Unsurprisingly… a variety of equity measures indicate that equity in state and local school operating revenues improved from FY99 to FY 09, but regressed somewhat from FY09 to FY19.”

When he was interviewed by Jim Siegel for the Columbus Dispatch, Fleeter was less technical and more candid about the state’s school funding formula: “The formula itself is kind of just spraying money in a not-very-targeted way.”

Siegel reminds readers about the impact of the 2008 Great Recession, compounded by state tax cuts promoted by Governor John Kasich and passed by the legislature: “GOP leaders… eliminated the tangible personal property tax, which more than a decade ago generated about $1.1 billion per year for schools.  For a time, state officials reimbursed schools for those losses, but that has largely been phased out… And finally, there are Gov. John Kasich’s funding formula and fiscal priorities, including income-tax cuts that have meant an estimated $3 billion less in available revenue each year… Kasich crafted a new formula designed to drive funding to districts with the least ability to raise their own local funds, but Fleeter and public education officials have argued that it doesn’t quite work properly.”

Through various schemes to privatize education—EdChoice and several other voucher programs along with a large charter school sector—Governor Kasich and the Republican legislature have found another method, in addition to the flawed school funding formula, to divert needed state dollars out of public schools across the state.  State takeovers of struggling school districts and EdChoice vouchers are the clearest examples in state policy of punitive, top down programs that blame and punish local educators in poor communities instead of driving resources and support to communities serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Once again, it is appropriate to quote Harvard’s Daniel Koretz explaining in The Testing Charade just how high stakes, test-based accountability blames and punishes schools that face the overwhelming challenge of student poverty:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

How the Nation’s Two Oldest School Voucher Programs Are Working: Part II—Ohio

School voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland are now over twenty-five years old.  Now Wisconsin and Ohio have expanded statewide what began as stand-alone, big-city programs, and last week, local newspapers in Milwaukee and Cleveland examined these programs.  Today’s post will look at Patrick O’Donnell’s recent Plain Dealer report on vouchers in Cleveland and Ohio. Yesterday’s post covered last week’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s report on Wisconsin vouchers.

While Erin Richards’ piece on Wisconsin explores the fiscal problems for a state that has begun to divert state and local tax dollars to pay for the education of students at private schools, Patrick O’Donnell in Cleveland emphasizes the problem of figuring out whether students at religious schools accepting vouchers receive a superior—or even adequate—education: “The school voucher programs that some federal and state officials want to expand have had mixed test results in Ohio that make it unclear how much more students learn than if they had stayed in their local public schools. Ohio’s voucher programs, which give families grants to help pay tuition at private schools, have a low bar to clear to look successful. Neither the state’s main voucher program, EdChoice, nor a Cleveland-only program is competing with high-scoring suburban districts. Both were created to let families avoid schools the state considered to be failing, so they only have to best the lowest-rated schools. But the private schools receiving voucher dollars have had mixed results, even when compared to these ‘failing’ public schools.”

Here is a caution: As O’Donnell compares the schools, he is using Ohio’s school ratings, based primarily on standardized test scores.  Any comprehensive school rating system would consider myriad other factors.  And, of course, test scores, in the aggregate reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods. (See here and here.)

O’Donnell compares voucher students’ standardized test scores in third and eighth grade and reports that students who have carried vouchers to religious schools score higher in reading and lower in math, “scoring lower—sometimes by a hair, sometimes by a lot—on four of the six state math tests for the same grade. It’s a trend that has held for several years.”

O’Donnell also examines a technical academic paper by David Figlio of the Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research, a study in which Figlio controls for all sorts of factors that may affect scores apart from the quality of the education schools provide: “Figlio found that while voucher students were typically better off financially and stronger academically than students they left behind, they did worse after going to private schools than comparable students who stayed in public schools.”  O’Donnell adds that Figlio’s study “was commissioned by the Fordham Institute, a leading advocate for school choice in Ohio and nationally.”

O’Donnell reports that 97 percent of Ohio school vouchers pay for tuition at religious schools, with Catholic schools dominating the recipients. Comparing the experience of students at public and the religious schools where students are carrying tuition vouchers is difficult according to O’Donnell’s report because religious schools are not required to accept all students even among students who may have qualified for a voucher  Some schools, for example,  accept the vouchers only if students pass admissions tests.  Also O’Donnell notes, “socioeconomic challenges like poverty and income… have a strong relationship to test scores across Ohio and nationally.”  He also lists other factors that contribute to school quality and are not measured by Ohio’s mandated tests—the number of English learners and special education students who are admitted to private schools, attendance and graduation rates.

While his primary analysis compares test scores in grades 3-8, in a companion article O’Donnell examines high schools, comparing public high schools in Cleveland and the religious high schools where students are carrying their tuition vouchers: “Ohio’s school voucher and testing system does not give a good comparison between public high schools and the private high schools that take the vouchers. The private (high) schools don’t want to take the same tests, and usually don’t. And since most voucher high schools have selective admissions with special tests and interviews that most public schools don’t have, test scores are often skewed.”  While in general, high school test scores where comparable, are higher in the religious than the public high schools, O’Donnell notes: “Those gaps, though, don’t take into account how selectively a private school selects its students or how much a school truly helped a student learn. The state doesn’t even track that.” “(C)omparing scores of selective schools to neighborhood schools that accept anyone won’t tell you which school is doing a better job.”

However, Cleveland has established three selective, magnet public specialty high schools. O’Donnell reports that test scores at Cleveland’s selective magnet high schools compare with scores at the city’s most selective Catholic high school: “While private schools that cherry-pick their students often have better-looking test scores, so do public magnet schools with competitive admissions.  In Cleveland, those schools even scored better than schools like St. Ignatius.”  “Cleveland’s Early College High School, the School of Architecture and Design and the School of Science and Medicine all had at least 97.8 percent of their students score as proficient on the reading and math OGT (Ohio Graduation Test)…. While St. Ignatius, Benedictine and St. Joseph high schools all scored as well as those district schools in reading, all three private schools had worse math results—still strong but below those of the district magnets.”

O’Donnell’s reporting of higher math performance scores in the public high schools reflects a broad research study of private vs. public schools, reported by University of Illinois professors, Chris and Sarah Lubienski, in their book, The Public School Advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home… But after further investigation and more targeted analyses, the results held up. And they held up… even when we used different models and variables in the analyses…  (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, pp. xvii-xviii)