Beware: Here Is How to Wreck Your State’s Public Schools

Many state legislatures are currently considering new private school tuition vouchers or planning to expand long running voucher programs, tuition tax credit vouchers, and education savings account vouchers. Ohio provides a stark warning about the potential damage of rapidly growing school privatization at public expense.

In a column in Sunday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, Peter Robertson examines how the growth of publicly funded private school tuition vouchers is increasingly sucking up the state funding Ohio supposedly provides for its public schools:

“According to the Ohio Department of Education’s first February Foundation Funding Report (Robertson’s article contains a link to the Excel spreadsheet from the Ohio Department of Education.), districts will spend $162 million this school year on these private school vouchers… An analysis last year by News5 Cleveland found that nearly two-thirds of voucher recipients had not previously been students in the public district schools—they were private school students who had not received state funding for their tuitions, and now do.”

Robertson was previously an administrator in the Cleveland Public Schools and later a school board member in Shaker Heights. “He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the role of online learning in educational change.”

Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers are funded by a legislative scheme called “the school district deduction.” The state counts voucher students (enrolled in a private school) as though they are enrolled in the public school district where the students reside. The district receives the state’s basic state aid amount for each of these students. Then the state extracts the voucher—$4,650 for each K-8 student and $6,000 for each high school student—right out of the school district’s budget. The problem is that in many school districts, the voucher amount extracted is larger than the amount of that school district’s state basic aid per-pupil—leaving the school district with a net funding loss for every student who carries a voucher away to a private school.

Robertson uses the school district where I live as his example of how this actually works: “So far this year, 24% of student enrollments reported by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights (CH-UH) district are for EdChoice private school vouchers, up from 20% the previous year and 13% the year before that. Thirty-nine percent of the district’s state funding or $8.9 million is projected to pay private school tuition.”

Changes to the EdChoice Voucher program last November—with State Senate President Matt Huffman’s expansion of the program introduced and passed without even one public hearing—protected school districts in wealthy communities from such school district deductions by making only students living in the attendance zones of Title I schools eligible to qualify for the vouchers. These are schools identified for the federal Title I program because they serve concentrations of children living in poverty.

Robertson explains: “The school and district attendance zones where students will be eligible for vouchers next school year are disproportionately populated by low-income households. Voucher eligibility is a function of a school’s poverty rate and the ‘Performance Index’ from the school’s state report card—and that index is constructed entirely of test scores…  So next year and in the years ahead, the legislature will use EdChoice vouchers to divert hundreds of millions more in state funding away from public schools that serve poor students to help pay the private school tuitions of students already attending private schools. These students do have to live in households at or below 250% of the poverty line, but are still likely to be better off economically than the students remaining in the schools from which this money will be drained.”

Robertson concludes by reminding the Plain Dealer‘s readers that in four decisions back between 1997 and 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court found public school funding in our state unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable, but the Court never required the Legislature to devise a remedy.  In the legislative session that ended on December 31, 2020, the Ohio House passed a new Fair School Funding Plan (by a margin of 87-9) to remedy our state’s public school funding. The bill also included the termination of school district deduction funding for charter schools and private school tuition vouchers. The Ohio Senate Finance Committee never took a vote on the plan, which caused the bill to die at the end of the session.

The Fair School Funding Plan has now been reintroduced as HB 1 in the new legislative session. We’ll see if Senate President Matt Huffman and Senate Finance Committee Chair Matt Dolan will be any more willing to support adequate and equitable public school funding, and whether they will be willing to let the legislature take full responsibility for budgeting for an ever expanding EdChoice Voucher program.

Of course, if Ohio’s anti-tax legislature decides to let the state assume responsibility for the huge and growing voucher program, the cost will inevitably subtract from what is available statewide for the public schools. But at least state budget funding would alleviate the horribly inequitable burden this program is currently imposing on districts with Title I schools. And perhaps, if legislators had to budget transparently for the full cost of the program instead of shifting the burden to local school districts, they would have an incentive to curtail the outrageously expensive growth rate of vouchers in Ohio.

In States with Oldest School Vouchers, School Choice Week Is Filled with Contention

Wisconsin and Ohio have the oldest school choice programs in the United States.  Milwaukee’s voucher program is 30 years old and the Cleveland Voucher Program is 24 years old.  Both states have expanded vouchers statewide beyond the two cities where they began. It ought to be a red flag that in these two states with the oldest programs, National School Choice Week may have been more contentious than anywhere else in the country.

National School Choice Week in Wisconsin

Last week Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos went to Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city, to honor National School Choice Week, a celebration of vouchers and charter schools that was established and is promoted every year by groups like the American Federation for Children—the group DeVos herself helped found and to which she has regularly donated generously—and Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd.

Pence and DeVos were not welcomed by Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who skipped the event altogether. Before he was elected governor, Evers was the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, and before that he was a public school educator. Evers has devoted his career to leading and promoting the state’s public schools.

Neither Pence nor DeVos was welcomed by the Capital Times in Madison, which editorialized: “Pence parrots the talking points of the wealthy campaign donors he has always served…. That’s what Pence did Tuesday in Madison… Pence was promoting ongoing efforts to undermine public education with the usual cabal of billionaire-funded advocates for the agenda of the Trump-Pence administration’s ‘school choice’ agenda… Out-of-state billionaires like DeVos and politicians like Pence have for years targeted Wisconsin in their efforts to promote ‘school choice’ initiatives. They got traction when one of their lackeys, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, was in office. But Walker, a Pence crony, was swept out of office in 2018 by a supporter of public education, Democrat Tony Evers.”

The Capital Times‘ editorial board adds that this year, there has been pressure against school privatization in the city of Milwaukee itself: “(I)n the spring of 2019, critics of school choice and school privatization schemes swept school board elections in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city… Key to the pushback against the ‘school choice’ advocates was the activism of African American and Latino Milwaukeeans, and the determination of groups such as Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) and Voces de la Frontera Action, Inc. to defend public education.”

On the very same day Pence and DeVos came to Madison to extol school choice, the Capital TimesBriana Reilly reported that State Representative, Jonathan Brostoff joined fellow Democratic lawmakers and public school advocates to reintroduce a bill that would phase out Wisconsin vouchers and reinstate a Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, to reduce public school class sizes and upgrade the curriculum in participating public schools.

Executive Director of the statewide Wisconsin Public Education Network, Heather DuBois Bourenane endorsed the Public Education Reinvestment Act being introduced. First she explained specific problems with private schools that receive vouchers: “They do not answer to a locally elected school board. They do not have to follow laws protecting students with disabilities. They do not have to follow the same stringent reporting and hiring requirements as public schools. They can use curriculum that is religious, unvetted and unscientific. They can—and frequently do—‘counsel out’ students who do not meet expectations, distorting the data on their performance and creating unfunded cost burdens for local public schools. This is unethical and we know it is wrong.”

As in other states, Wisconsin’s legislature has created “school choice” programs, but the same state legislature has neglected to pass the taxes that would fund the programs. In Wisconsin and other states, vouchers and charter schools have been funded at the expense of public schools. DuBois Bourenane described the fiscal disaster thrust on Wisconsin’s public schools by ever-expanding school vouchers: “Wisconsin is spending $351,180,390.29 this year to provide taxpayer funded tuition vouchers to 43,450 students at 317 schools, nearly 100 percent of which are religious schools. We know that nearly all of the students in the statewide program already attended these private schools… There are over 860,000 children whose parents choose to send them to the public schools that are the heart of our communities; public schools that accept, embrace, and proudly serve ALL students. Yet data from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows that even as the unaccountable voucher program has been recklessly expanded, our public schools have been increasingly underserved by the state. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, ‘In 2021, the state will invest less in public school districts than it did in 2011…. In 2021, Wisconsin school districts will receive $75 million less in state aid than in 2011 in inflation-adjusted dollars.'”

National School Choice Week In Ohio

Tomorrow, February 1, parents are scheduled to begin claiming vouchers for Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher Program for the 2020-2021 school year, but as of this morning, nobody knows what the program will look like or how many students will be able to qualify.

Buried in amendments inserted at the last minute into the state’s biennial budget last summer was the explosive expansion of this voucher program funded by deductions out of school districts’ budgets. It was the latest development in the Ohio Legislature’s punishment scheme for public school districts, and was based on making schools across the state eligible for vouchers if the state’s school report cards are too low. The number of public schools where students are eligible to claim EdChoice vouchers increased from 255 in the 2018-2019 school year to 517 during this 2019-2020 school year.  The number of qualifying schools is scheduled to grow to more than 1,200 public schools in the 2020-2021 school year. Last summer, the legislature also eliminated a requirement that high school students must have previously enrolled in the school public district paying for the new vouchers.

The rapid expansion of this program has outraged officials and taxpayers across the state’s 610 school districts. In many school districts, the cost of the vouchers is more than the formula adjusted, per-pupil state basic aid.  Several school districts have been forced to put local property tax levies on the ballot just to cover the cost of the new vouchers, many of which will pay for the tuition of students who always been enrolled in private and religious schools.

The Ohio Senate, filled with dogged voucher proponents, released a plan at midnight on Tuesday, a plan that would have cut the number of qualifying voucher schools from 517 to 425 and made some adjustments to cover some of the unexpected costs for the school districts most affected by the huge and unexpected jump in voucher costs for the current school year. Otherwise it left the program intact.

By Wednesday, the Ohio House of Representatives had voted unanimously to reject the Senate’s plan. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Larry Householder, released a proposal on Wednesday night that would base voucher qualification on family income, not on a school or school district’s grade on the state report cards everyone agrees are deeply flawed.  Householder proposed that the state undertake fully to cover the cost of the vouchers, thereby eliminating the school district deduction.

Here, as reported by Karen Kasler of the Statehouse News Bureau, is Householder’s own description of his seemingly simple and fair solution: “We have sent our members home for the night and plan to reconvene at 1 p.m. Thursday for our regularly scheduled session. The House has laid out a simple, straight-forward plan that would replace Ohio’s current building performance-based EdChoice voucher with an opportunity scholarship that would be entirely poverty-based. It would allow schools—public and private—to compete more fairly. These Opportunity Scholarships would be funded directly and entirely by the state, instead of being deducted from state aid paid to local districts, as is currently the case with the performance-based EdChoice voucher. This approach has a lot less impact on local school districts and puts the focus where it belongs: For a more equal opportunity for all of Ohio’s 1.8 million school kids, regardless of their ZIP Code.”

The plans are very different.  A conference committee has been meeting to come up with a compromise. The Saturday date for parents to sign up for vouchers for the 2020-2021 school year looms tomorrow.  This morning the word is that the Legislature may push the deadline for resolving this out for two months. No one knows whether or how this issue will be resolved.

Late yesterday afternoon it was reported that Ohio legislators in favor of of the EdChoice program based on Ohio’s school report cards had reached out to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and asked her to lobby other lawmakers. The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported: “For school choice advocates, DeVos is considered a champion for private schools and other alternatives to public schools.”  There is, of course, considerable irony that the U.S. Secretary of Education is the lobbyist privatizers bring in when school choice seems REALLY threatened.

This blog has extensively covered problems with Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher Program: here, here, here, and here.