What Is at Stake when ALEC, the State Policy Network, The Buckeye Institute and EdChoice Lobby for Vouchers?

As we begin 2021, there has been troubling coverage about new voucher programs popping up in state legislatures. This is despite that Betsy DeVos is gone and that President Joseph Biden is a strong supporter of the institution of public schools. And in states like Indiana, and Ohio, where privatized school vouchers have been in place for decades, we can also watch pressure for their expansion.

Earlier this week, Bill Phillis, Ohio’s longest and best informed proponent of public schools and the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, sent around a troubling article from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette describing a bill being considered by the Indiana House Education Committee for the radical expansion of an already enormous publicly funded private school tuition voucher program in Indiana, Ohio’s neighbor:

“The proposed bill expands the $172 million a year voucher program to allow a family of four earning as much as $145,000 a year to qualify for vouchers. Median household income in Indiana is about $60,000 a year. The bill also eliminates income limits on the size of the voucher awards. Currently, a family of four earning up to $48,000 a year is limited to a voucher worth 90% of per-student state funding for the school corporation in which the family resides. At $60,000 a year in household income, the voucher drops to 70%. Four-person families earning up to $96,000 a year qualify for 50% of per-student funding. But HB 1005 drops the income tiers even as it raises income eligibility. A family of four earning up to $109,000 would qualify for a 90% voucher in 2021-22. In 2022-23, eligibility rises to $145,000 a year for a 90% voucher. That translates to millions of tax dollars to parents who do not choose public schools but can afford tuition for their children.”

The goal of voucher proponents in Indiana is clearly similar to Ohio State Senate President Matt Huffman’s dogged purpose in Ohio. In late November, Huffman pushed through without even a committee hearing a revamp of his primary project: expanding voucher accessibility to an ever increasing number of students across our state. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is always said to be the driver of voucher promotion nationwide.  In 2017, ALEC and another national far-right organization FreedomWorks made Matt Huffman their legislator of the week.

A nationwide right-wing bill mill, ALEC creates model bills, including bills for tax credit vouchers and education savings account vouchers, and sends its model bills into the 50 statehouses with the intention that at least in some places they will be enacted into state law. FreedomWorks defines itself: “FreedomWorks exists to build, educate, and mobilize the largest network of activists advocating the principles of smaller government, lower taxes, free markets, personal liberty and the rule of law.”

But ALEC and FreedomWorks are not the primary advocates testifying in in state legislatures for the launch of school vouchers—or in states like Indiana and Ohio, the expansion of school vouchers. In Indiana, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for EdChoice, now formally named EdChoice , describes its purpose: “EdChoice is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Our team is driven by the shared mission to advance a K–12 education system where all families are free to choose a learning environment that works best for their children.” This is doubletalk for the idea of substituting universal school choice at public expense for a system of public schools.

In Ohio, aligned in purpose with EdChoice, is the Buckeye Institute, a nonprofit that actively and regularly floods the statehouse with lobbyists. In the area of education, the Buckeye Institute says its purpose is, “Giving all children the best education through school choice and returning local control to every community.”  And it announces a special priority: “Support education savings accounts for parents to personalize their children’s learning experience and save for college.”

EdChoice and the Buckeye Institute are both members of the State Policy Network (SPN), which SourceWatch describes as, “a web of right-wing ‘think tanks’ and tax-exempt organizations in 50 states (see this interactive map), Washington, D.C., Canada, and the United Kingdom. As of August 2020, SPN’s membership totals 162. Today’s SPN is the tip of the spear of (a) far-right, nationally funded policy agenda in the states that undergirds extremists in the Republican Party… SPN groups operate as the policy, communications, and litigation arm of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), giving the cookie-cutter ALEC agenda a sheen of academic legitimacy and state-based support.”

Where does the money behind this State Policy Network of organizations come from?  In a major 2013 investigation of the State Policy Network, SourceWatch reported that it is hard to know, because funding mostly flows through DonorsTrust and the Donors Capital Fund, dark money sources that do not name individual donors: “The largest known funder behind SPN and its member think tanks are two closely related funds—DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund… They are what are called ‘donor-advised funds,’ which means that the fund creates separate accounts for individual donors, and the donors then recommend disbursements from the accounts to different nonprofits. It cloaks the identity of the original mystery donors or makes it impossible to connect donors with recipients because the funds are then distributed in the name of DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.”

SourceWatch has identified some major contributors in addition to DonorsTrust to the State Policy Network and its so-called “think tanks,” including the Walton Family Foundation: $1,725,000 (2014-2019); the Bradley Foundation: $1,570,000 (2014-2019); and the Sarah Scaife Foundation: $840,000 (2016-2018).

Unfortunately knowing about pro-voucher organizations and even some of the groups which are funding all this activity does not make it any easier to advocate against this kind of massive influence peddling for vouchers and tax credit vouchers and education savings account vouchers across our state legislatures. In an important new book, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional law professor Derek Black explores the serious challenge posed by dark money and groups like ALEC, the State Policy Network, Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, and Indiana’s EdChoice. Derek Black believes the threat is greatest in the nation’s most vulnerable communities serving Black, Brown, and poor children:

“(T)he interests of those pulling the political and financial levers behind the scenes to expand charters and vouchers do not align with disadvantaged communities. Their goal, unlike that of minority communities, is not to ensure that each and every child, regardless of wealth, race, or religion, receives an equal and adequate educational opportunity. The powerful interests behind the scenes want a much different system of government than the one our founders put in our state and federal constitutions. Undermining public education is a big part of making that happen. Education, they say, is ‘the lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today.’ In their minds, the scales of justice should tip away from mass democracy and the common good toward individualism and private property. That means less taxes, less government, less public education. While couched as more liberty, what they really mean is that government should let the chips fall where they may. It isn’t government’s job to ensure equal participation in democracy.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 19)

Derek Black believes those of us who are committed to public education must not merely be persistent in opposing all kinds of school privatization. We must also be prepared clearly to articulate why public schools are so important: “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and the CEOs children. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values. We know that the idea has never been fully true in our schools, but we need to believe in that idea… The pursuit of that idea, both in fact and in mind, has long set us apart from the world….” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 250)

Ohio Senate Killed New School Funding Plan: Now We Hear That Money Doesn’t Matter

Ohio Auditor Keith Faber explained on Tuesday that, “The Auditor of State’s Office recently completed a performance audit for the Ohio Department of Education.” Faber says that the purpose is to make recommendations about “economy, efficiency, and/or effectiveness in the areas reviewed…”

One of the subjects of the new report from the Ohio Auditor’s office is the correlation of school districts’ expenditure per pupil with their school performance as measured by standardized tests.  Here, from the Performance Audit Summary, is what the Auditor discovered: “Conclusion: Expenditure per pupil has a loose association with Achievement in Ohio, particularly at the high performing districts.  As total district spending increases, there is no single expenditure category driving this increase.”  Later in the body of the report, the Auditor states: “The analyses in this section indicate that it is not necessary for districts to spend more to get better results. The data show that lower spending districts can achieve at the same level as higher spending districts, a point which parents and taxpayers should take into consideration in their personal decision-making surrounding financial and performance issues in their district. ODE and LEAs should consider if there is a point of diminishing returns in spending, where additional district revenue and expenditures will not necessarily increase student success.”

The Plain Dealer‘s Emily Bamforth digs deeper, explaining to readers that one purpose of the Audit was to discover which practices in high spending school districts are most essential for raising test scores: “The research found there is a low correlation between per-pupil spending and success on the Performance Index, and often higher spending was correlated with a lower index score. The auditor’s report maps the analysis, which shows clusters of high spending compared to low index scores around urban areas, like Cleveland and Cincinnati. The conclusion was used to reinforce recommendations to the Department of Education to review the highest performing districts’ practices to see what could be applied to other schools, and for community members to question spending relative to student success.”

I give Bamforth credit for questioning the Auditor’s conclusions and highlighting some of what is missing in the auditor’s report: “(T)he state auditor’s office claims that spending-per-pupil in districts is not closely correlated with student success. However, this conclusion does not factor in socioeconomic data that might affect student performance. Socioeconomic standing affects outcomes in many areas of life, including education and health, according to the American Psychological Association.  Socioeconomic status includes household income, among other factors.”

Bamforth cites the American Psychological Association, but the body of research examining the correlation of school districts’ aggregate standardized test scores with family and neighborhood economics is long, deep, and overwhelming. Academic research in two areas—(1) the correlation of lower school achievement with socioeconomic opportunity gaps, and (2) the impact of per-pupil spending on student achievement—confirms Bamforth’s skepticism about the new report from Ohio Auditor Keith Faber.

The Research on the Difference Between School Achievement Gaps and Opportunity Gaps

In their 2014 book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, educational researchers David Berliner and Gene Glass explain: “For schools to be a powerful solution to the problems of poverty, it would help if an America absent of poverty already existed. We know that the socioeconomic status of students explains most of the variation in educational outcomes. Although there is evidence that some schools with many low-income students are academically successful, there is much more evidence that most schools do not overcome the barriers that stem from low income and low wealth. Health care, housing, stability, and a host of other out-of-school influences greatly affect a child’s academic achievement. Much of the achievement gap in test scores and much of the gap in graduation rates between racial and socioeconomic groups are due to opportunity gaps such as access to medical care, stable housing, and freedom from discrimination.” (Fifty Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, pp. 230-231. The authors cite the research report documenting this conclusion.)

Why Money Matters and Why One Should Not Assume that Successful Programs in “High Achieving” School Districts Are Simply Transferable Best Practices

Ohio’s A-rated school districts on the state’s Performance Index are mostly located in wealthy exurbs. Ignoring the correlation between family and neighborhood economics, the Ohio Auditor’s report seems to suggest that if the state can only identify best practices in high-achieving school districts, these programs can simply be moved to low-achieving districts as a strategy for raising overall achievement as measured by test scores..

In Educational Inequality and School Finance: Why Money Matters for America’s Students, the nation’s best known expert on school finance, Bruce Baker explains, for example, that in a school where student poverty is concentrated, students will always benefit from the most basic—and sometimes very costly—investments. We don’t need the Ohio auditor to tell us what a rich exurban district is doing; instead the state simply needs to budget the needed dollars: “Reducing class size is often characterized as a particularly expensive use of additional school dollars… What we do know… is that ample research indicates that children in smaller classes achieved better outcomes, both academic and otherwise, and that class size reduction can be an effective strategy for closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.” (Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 98-99)

Baker reports that education costs more in schools serving poorer students or students with special needs: “(A) substantial body of research addresses how child poverty, limited English proficiency, unplanned family mobility, and school racial composition may influence the costs of achieving any given level of student outcomes. The various ways children are sorted across districts and schools create large differences in the costs of achieving comparable outcomes, as do changes in the overall demography of the student population over time. Rises in poverty, mobility due to housing disruptions, and the numbers of children not speaking English proficiently all lead to increases in the cost of achieving even the same level of outcomes achieved in prior years. This is not an excuse. it’s reality. It costs more to achieve the same outcomes with some students than with others.”(Educational Inequality and School Finance, pp. 198-199)

Ohio legislators, with expert guidance from educational leaders and school finance economists,  just spent over two years developing a new school funding plan. Howard Fleeter, an expert on Ohio school finance, criticized the plan 18 months ago when an early draft was released, because while the first draft addressed the reality that Ohio’s school funding has become increasingly inadequate through a decade of tax cuts, the new plan’s first draft did not invest enough in equity.

In a September 4, 2019 report, Fleeter explained: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.”  In an appendix to the same report, Fleeter adds that over the past decade, Ohio has systematically reduced funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children:

  • “For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
  • “Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
  • “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
  • “There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
  • “The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”

It is ironic that, right now, Ohio Auditor Keith Faber has been asked by the Ohio Department of Education to investigate “economy, efficiency, and/or effectiveness” of the distribution of school funding. After all, less than a month ago, the Ohio Legislature killed the proposed new school funding plan once it had been adjusted to meet Fleeter’s demand that the state would more equitably serve the needs of the school districts serving the state’s poorest students. The Ohio House of Representatives passed the new plan by an overwhelming margin, but the Ohio Senate killed the plan by refusing to vote on it before the session ended.  Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman claims that the Ohio Senate let the plan die because he estimates the plan would have cost $4 billion rather than the $2 billion the plan’s sponsors projected. And now the auditor has conveniently “discovered” that perhaps a school district’s level of expenditure doesn’t really affect student achievement after all.

I suspect that leaders of the Ohio Senate are beginning to lay out their case that we can simply get by by spending less money more efficiently. That’s nonsense. It is just the latest proof that the conservative Republican majority in the Ohio Senate lacks the will to invest in the school districts which serve Ohio’s poorest children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleeter begins by explaining that Ohio needs a new school funding formula because for the past decade the state has lacked a working school funding plan: “The FY10-11 school year was the last year in which Ohio had a school funding formula… which was based on objective methodologies for determining the cost of providing an adequate education to Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students.  In FY12 and FY13, Ohio employed the ‘Bridge’ formula which was not really a formula at all, instead basing funding on FY11 levels. From FY14 through FY19, Ohio did have a school funding formula; however, this formula suffered from several significant deficiencies. First the base cost was not based on any adequacy methodology, instead just utilizing per pupil amounts selected by the legislature. This approach is the very embodiment of ‘residual budgeting’ which was explicitly ruled unconstitutional in the March 1997 DeRolph ruling.”  Although the term “residual budgeting” sounds technical and complicated, what Fleeter is explaining is that from FY 14 to FY 19, the Legislature simply set per-pupil state funding based on now much “residual” money the Legislature had left in the budget after funding all the other expenses of state government.

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

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

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

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

So… why is the Ohio Senate dragging its feet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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).

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.

In Ohio a School Voucher Expansion Has Been Introduced in the Legislature. What Does It Mean?

In Ohio, where privatization has been expanding since the 1990s—with five kinds of school vouchers plus a large and unregulated charter school sector—Matt Huffman, a state senator from Lima has proposed consolidating three of the state’s voucher programs into one and expanding its reach into the middle class. Ohioans have been watching school privatization expand for decades, and it is not difficult to predict the impact of the expansion of vouchers.

Unlike some other states, Ohio did not see a rash of new school startups to take advantage of the three voucher programs which would be folded together into the new plan. Vouchers first began in Cleveland and then expanded to other large cities.  Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer recently documented: “The vast majority, 97% of money from Ohio’s three main tuition voucher programs goes to private religious schools.”  O’Donnell then lists the top twenty schools in the state receiving vouchers. All of the schools are religious. Sixteen are Catholic schools—ten of them in Cleveland; one is a Cleveland-area Lutheran school. Sixteen of the twenty are in Ohio’s big cities, with three in suburbs of those cities, and one in a smaller city. None is located in a small town or rural area. (The fourth and fifth Ohio voucher programs serve only students with disabilities; they are are smaller and unrelated to Huffman’s new proposal.)

While some other states have seen a rash of schools established by entrepreneurs trying to benefit from new voucher programs (see Erin Richards’ piece on Milwaukee), profits to be made from school privatization in Ohio have derived almost entirely from the unregulated charter sector. All sorts of people have rushed to get a piece of the charter school action—non-profits that sought to benefit from becoming sponsors or authorizers just to get the three percent of state money provided for the non-profit that is supposed to provide adequate oversight but rarely follows through—investors like David Brennan who runs White Hat Management Company, which runs the Life Skills Academies that supposedly help adolescents with dropout recovery—William Lager of the on-line Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which is known for collecting over $100 million in tax dollars ever year even though attendance of up to two-thirds of the students appears to be fraudulent and who owns the two lucrative for-profits that provide all of  ECOT’s curriculum and daily management—the mom and pop operators who have been caught buying expensive vacations and cars with the tax dollars that are supposed to be paying for children’s education.

In Ohio, the vouchers have diverted a large and growing stream of tax dollars (that used to support the state’s over 600 public school districts) to religious schools, usually managed by the state’s Catholic Dioceses. And a primary problem this year as Ohio’s legislature looks at Huffman’s voucher expansion is that the state faces a serious budget crunch resulting from several years of income tax cuts.  Here is Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch: “State revenue is tumbling, led by weakening Ohio income tax collections, and the state budget director is warning lawmakers to prepare for less available money in the upcoming budget… Overall, total state tax collections came in $203 million below estimates in March, leaving that revenue $615 million below estimates through nine months of this fiscal year, or 3.7 percent.  The revenue is coming in low even though state budget officials revised their estimates downward in June of last year by $280 million.  While it’s unlikely to hurt the current budget that ends June 30… the lower-than-expected revenues are expected to negatively impact how much money is available for the new two-year, $66.9 billion budget currently under debate in the House.”

Senator Huffman’s voucher expansion—Senate Bill 85—is to be called Opportunity Scholarships.  The new plan would fold together three different voucher programs—the Cleveland Scholarship (the old Cleveland voucher program), EdChoice, and EdChoice Expansion (both statewide programs that now serve children in low-scoring schools). The Ohio Legislative Service Commission (LSC) explains what would be the fiscal consequences of Huffman’s proposal for the state budget and for school districts. (The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell also summarizes the LSC’s analysis.) First of all, the old voucher programs were designed originally to serve students in poverty.  Huffman’s proposal raises the income cap for students who would qualify to 400 percent of the federal poverty guidelines—which means that for a family of four, children could qualify for a voucher with family income of up to $98,400.  LSC calculates: “Statewide, an estimated 74% of children come from family incomes below 400% of the federal poverty guidelines, the threshold to qualify for an Opportunity scholarship. A total of 1.08 million public regular education students are estimated to be eligible for Opportunity scholarships.  Hypothetically, if all such students opt for the new scholarship, net state costs would be roughly $1.19 billion per year.”  The new bill provides vouchers of $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and $6,000 for high schoolers.

How quickly would this program grow?  The Legislative Service Commission speculates that, “Ultimately, the cost of the program will depend on state appropriation levels.”  In simple terms this means that, because the program funds the vouchers from the state’s general revenue fund, the legislature itself would determine the size of the program through debate about the biennial state education budget and the appropriations process.  There are several ways, however, that the program has built-in growth.  First, once a student has a voucher, that student “may continue to receive the scholarship in subsequent school years until the student completes high school.” Further, the new plan stipulates that students cannot already be enrolled in a private or religious school and apply for the voucher. They “cannot have been enrolled in a chartered nonpublic school in the school year prior to the year for which an Opportunity scholarship is sought.” However, that stipulation omits one very significant group of students: those entering Kindergarten. At issue in Ohio’s old EdChoice voucher program has been the number of children who never planned to attend public school but have instead secured a voucher for Kindergarten at a religious school and then kept the voucher all the way through high school. Additionally the new program automatically qualifies students who already have a voucher under one of the old programs along with the siblings of students who have secured a voucher.

What would be the impact of Huffman’s Opportunity Scholarship vouchers on local school district finances?  While the old vouchers were “deductions of the state foundation aide allocated to the student’s resident district,”  the new vouchers would come right out of the state’s general revenue fund, and the children receiving a voucher would no longer be counted at all in any school’s average daily membership. Here is what the Legislative Service Commission says: “Because the state’s school funding formula is based on enrollment, school districts with students who take the scholarship are likely to lose state aid. Over time, the reduction could be substantial, but ultimately would depend on participation rates. School district expenditures may decrease due to educating fewer students.”  We know, of course, that school districts cannot quickly adjust fixed costs when students leave for any reason. And the Legislative Service Commission reports that, as with the old voucher programs, public school districts would be required to provide school bus transportation to all children within the radius of a 30 minute bus ride to the voucher school from the site of the public school to which the student would normally be assigned.

Finally, Huffman has added an Education Savings Account (one of the pet programs of the American Legislative Exchange Council—ALEC) to his new voucher plan.  The Legislative Service Commission explains: “The bill requires ODE (Ohio Department of Education) to establish and maintain an education savings account for each Opportunity scholarship student whose scholarship amount exceeds the students’ tuition and fees… The bill permits a student or parent to use the money in the student’s education savings account for eligible future primary, secondary, and post-secondary education expenses….”   As with several aspects of Huffman’s new plan, the presence of an education savings account may be a clue to Huffman’s hope for ways to use the plan as a a mere beginning—the barest foundation on which school privatization can be expanded in the future.

The most serious concern about Huffman’s new program is its potentially overwhelming cost.  In the proposed voucher expansion, the public will be paying to educate in private schools a large and growing number of Kindergarten children who would never have attended a public school, and paying for their education all the way through high school.  The new plan also expands the voucher program to qualify families in the middle class—according to the Legislative Service Commission, 74 percent of the state’s children. But there is no plan to expand the state’s education budget to pay for the education of thousands of students who would never have planned to enroll in a public school and would  likely have attended a religious school anyway. The assumption that public school districts can reduce fixed services, dollar-for-dollar when students leave—especially when the public schools will serve the mass of homeless students, disabled students and English language learners, is fanciful.

With five different kinds of vouchers and a plethora of unregulated charter schools, Ohio’s super-majority Republican House and Senate and Governor John Kasich have proven to be enthusiastic supporters of school privatization. Despite that a new report sponsored by the pro-privatization Thomas Fordham Institute found that students in voucher schools have been scoring significantly lower in math on standardized tests, our legislators seem not to be overly concerned.

The public, however, ought to be very concerned about the further diversion of state funding to support private religious schools at a time when voters have already been forced again and again to increase local millage to replace diminishing state education dollars.  The public also ought to be concerned about other significant problems for public schools that will be exacerbated if Ohio vouchers are expanded:

  • Public school districts are required by law to serve all children and adolescents residing within their boundaries; the religious schools accepting vouchers are free to select their students through admissions tests, applications, and interviews.
  • Public schools are required to provide appropriate services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; religious schools are likely not to accept blind or deaf or multiply-handicapped children who require expensive services.  Nor are private schools accepting vouchers required to provide adequate services for English language learners.
  • While the slice of the state education budget for the state’s over 600 public school districts will be inevitably be reduced overall if the private school voucher program is expanded, public school districts in rural areas and small towns will be in the position of losing state dollars to subsidize private religious schools in more populated areas.

Finally, while the U.S. Supreme Court found Ohio’s vouchers constitutional in a First Amendment challenge (the 2002 decision in Zellman v. Simmons-Harris), because the “scholarships” are said to be given to the parents who choose the school (rather than paid as state grants directly to religious schools), many people remain seriously concerned with Ohio’s vouchers as a violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state. While the U.S. Constitution prohibits state “establishment” of religion, and while it protects any person’s “free exercise” of religion, voucher schools across Ohio regularly expect their students to join in the religious practices of the schools’ sponsors.