Ohio Legislative Leader Rams Through Voucher Changes that Hurt Students in Poor, Title I Schools

This post has been updated.

The Ohio Senate is up to its old tricks.

Five years ago right at the end of a spring session of the Ohio Legislature, a group of state senators added a long amendment to House Bill 70, which was about expanding the number of full service, wraparound community learning centers—schools with medical and social services located right in the school. The amendment had nothing to do with the subject of the original bill. The amendment’s purpose was to establish the state takeover of the school district in Youngstown and set up a procedure for state takeovers of other so-called “failing” school districts. A deal had been cut. No opponent testimony was permitted. The Ohio Senate passed the amended HB 70 and sent it back for quick approval by the Ohio House. Within hours, Governor John Kasich had signed it, and without public input, an appointed Academic Distress Commission supplanted the elected school board in Youngstown.

This time the subject is vouchers.

Last spring, just as everything shut down due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, both houses of the Ohio Legislature debated changes in the EdChoice voucher program and came up with two separate bills. EdChoice eligibility is currently described by legislators as “performance-based.” The state designates EdChoice schools by these schools’ low ratings on the state’s school district report card, which everybody agrees is flawed. Last spring the program was expected to double in size. At angry hearings, school districts complained because EdChoice vouchers are funded through something called “the school district deduction.” The House plan would have funded the vouchers out of the state budget; the Senate plan kept the school district deduction.

When COVID-19 shut everything down and House and Senate were unable to agree on a plan, a conference committee began quietly meeting. It’s been a complicated year, so everybody was surprised last week when the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reported that Matt Huffman, a powerful legislator already elected to be senate president in the new legislative session beginning in January, had announced that the conference committee has a new plan for EdChoice vouchers. On Wednesday of this week, without any public hearings and without any real attempt to explain Huffman’s EdChoice scheme to the public, the Ohio Senate passed Huffman’s new plan as part of Senate Bill 89. On Thursday SB 89 was approved by the Ohio House .

Thank you, Senator Teesa Fedor (D-Toledo) for speaking the truth despite being outvoted. The Ohio Capital Journal‘s Susan Tebben reports that Fedor protested that the new EdChoice plan “does not reflect the public school advocates and the issues they brought forward (last spring). At best, this change is based on arbitrary criteria.”

What Is Huffman’s New Plan?

Here is how the EdChoice program has been working. Schools are “EdChoice Designated” by their scores on the state report card. The state continues to count the voucher students as though they are enrolled in the public schools and gives each voucher student’s per pupil state foundation formula funding to the school district, but then deducts the voucher from the school district’s local budget. The problem is that in all but a handful of the state’s school districts, the cost of the voucher—$4,650 for a K-8 voucher or $6,000 for a high school voucher—is higher than the amount the state gives the school district for that student. EdChoice voucher deductions rob school districts of essential budget dollars. And in the current budget biennium, with state school funding frozen at the FY19 level for all school districts, 100 percent of the cost of newly awarded vouchers is being covered by local school district budgets. Thus EdChoice vouchers reduce local school budgets at the expense of needed programming for the students who attend traditional public schools.

Huffman’s new, revised SB 89 plan passed on Wednesday by the Ohio Senate and accepted by the Ohio House on Thursday, still uses the school district deduction method of funding. But instead of relying on the school district report cards—whose calculation everybody regards as flawed—Huffman’s plan starts by targeting public schools where at least 20 percent of students qualify for federal Title I funding. Title I schools are identified by the federal government because they serve concentrations of students living in poverty. Second,  Huffman’s plan selects the 20 percent of Ohio’s schools scoring lowest on the performance index of the state report cards. Through the combination of these two factors, Huffman’s plan designates the schools which will qualify for EdChoice. The new Huffman plan will designate only 469 schools.  Under the old state report card designation process, EdChoice had been expected to double its current size this winter to 1,229 schools.

Serious Questions about Huffman’s New Plan

Why does Senator Huffman want to extract precious funding from the budgets of school districts that serve concentrations poor students who themselves need smaller classes and more programming in their public schools?  Despite that the Ohio Legislature justifies EdChoice vouchers as a way to help poor students (ignoring considerable evidence—see Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, The Public School Advantage—that private and religious schools are not superior to public schools), the plan hurts the mass of poor students whose public schools are diminished when the vouchers extract money out of their public school’s budget. Tebben quotes State Senator Andy Brenner—among the Legislature’s farthest-to-the-right ALEC members who once dubbed public schools a form of socialism—disingenuously justifying the new plan as a salvation for poor students who attend so-called “failing” schools: “We need to make sure that those students are given a solid education and yes, I would love to see that those students stay in their original, traditional buildings if they could do that… But they’re not learning… They should be allowed that opportunity.”

The situation in the school district where I live, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland, typifies the mistake in the Legislature’s justification.  In the CH-UH school district during the current school year, 1,699 of the 1,792 students carrying the vouchers out of the school district—95 percent—have never been enrolled in the school district’s public schools. In essence this means that in CH-UH, and across Ohio, the Legislature is forcing local public school districts to undertake the unexpected expense of paying for private and religious education. Dispatch reporter, Staver quotes both Senator Huffman and current Senate President Larry Obhoff worrying about private and religious school families who fear losing vouchers as the reason the Senate must hurry up and pass the new plan, but it is the state’s poorest public school students who will lose out under Huffman’s new plan.

Covering Huffman’s new plan, cleveland.com’s Jeremy Pelzer quotes Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, condemning the new plan because it is increasingly targeted to districts serving children in poverty: “Schools that rate low on the state’s performance index are usually in areas of the state with high poverty rates…  We don’t think that’s fair… We don’t think this is a good day for Ohio’s kids.” DiMauro’s assessment is correct. Last March, part of the controversy about EdChoice vouchers was that the Ohio school district report card designation had projected a number of schools in wealthy suburbs becoming EdChoice Designated as the number of Designated schools was set to explode to 1,229.  By limiting EdChoice Designated schools to Title I schools, Huffman’s new plan will protect the local budgets of the outer suburban districts serving wealthy families from EdChoice voucher deductions.

Why did Senator Huffman sneak through a redesigned voucher plan without hearings when the Legislature is currently holding hearings on a carefully developed, bipartisan comprehensive school funding plan that his voucher funding scheme contradicts? Important questions about Huffman’s rushed attempt to pass SB 89 this week arise because the Ohio House and Ohio Senate are currently considering Substitute HB 305 and SB 376, which together constitute a new, comprehensive state school funding system. The Fair School Funding Plan, a bipartisan effort that has undergone two years of analysis, is currently in open hearings, and must be passed by the end of the current legislative session on December 31, 2020 or the process would have to start over again.  The Fair School Funding Plan is designed to rectify an old formula that has stopped working altogether.  A decade of state tax cuts has left the formula underfunded; 508 of the state’s 610 school districts had been operating under caps or hold harmless guarantees until the current biennial budget froze all formula state aid at the FY 2019 level. The new plan identifies growing inequity as a particular problem as the state has failed to help the school districts with the lowest local taxing capacity and the greatest number of impoverished students. If it is adopted, the new Fair School Funding formula would increase state categorical per-pupil assistance for disadvantaged students from $272 per pupil to $422 per pupil.

The new Fair School Funding Plan would also eliminate all school district deduction funding for vouchers and charters. The Ohio House has begun hearing open testimony from public school superintendents, treasurers, parents, and advocates about the dire need for more state assistance.  Even the state’s fast-growing outer suburbs have been suffering under capped funding as they need to hire more teachers. The state’s poorest school districts are desperate. I wonder why Senator Huffman has rushed through a bill to confirm school district deduction voucher funding at the same time the Legislature is considering banning this funding method?

Why is Senator Huffman designating Ohio schools by their Title I status for vouchers that extract local school district funding, thereby directly undermining the purpose of the federal Title I program?  The federal Title Formula program was enacted in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. Its purpose was federally improving school funding equity by supplementing state funding in the schools serving our nation’s poorest students. Now the Ohio Legislature has passed a plan to use the Title I designation to identify school districts from which state will be diverting funding for EdChoice vouchers for private and religious schools. Ironically and tragically, Ohio Senate Bill 89 will undermine the purpose of Title I by denying opportunity for the students enrolled in the state’s Title I public schools.

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.