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.