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.