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.
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.