On Tuesday evening, the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the American Federation for Children—the group affiliated through the years with Betsy DeVos—sponsored a meeting at my local public library, where the speaker, representing School Choice Ohio, promoted Ohio’s taxpayer-funded, EdChoice school vouchers.
Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers are available to students living in the attendance zones of what are considered “failing” schools. Ohio is emerging from a three year “safe harbor” period following a change in the high stakes test by which Ohio judges school quality. Next fall, the number of EdChoice voucher-eligible, so called “failing” schools will double—to 475 across the state—reports Patrick O’Donnell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The list of local public schools whose students will be able to qualify for the vouchers next fall is nearly 12 pages long and includes a mass of schools in every big city and a growing number of the state’s inner-ring suburbs. (Cleveland schools do not appear on this list, because the state maintains a separate voucher program in Cleveland.)
The meeting on Tuesday night at the Cleveland Heights Main Library offered coffee and donuts along with several packets about the voucher program and information for prospective voucher parents about School Choice Ohio’s counseling services to help parents qualify for a voucher. Alyson Miles was Tuesday’s primary speaker. She is not currently listed on the staff of School Choice Ohio but appears instead as the Deputy Director of Government Affairs at the Ohio office of the American Federation for Children. She is also, according to the website of School Choice Ohio, one of the three members of School Choice Ohio’s board of directors. The other board members are Rabbi Yitz Frank, the Ohio Director of Agudath Israel of America in Cleveland Ohio, and Ann Riddle, Executive Director of the Northwest Ohio Scholarship Fund, located in Sylvania, Ohio—a suburb of Toledo.
In Ohio, to qualify for an EdChoice Voucher, students must have been enrolled previously in a public school unless they are entering Kindergarten. Once a Kindergartner receives a voucher, the student can keep it for twelve years of schooling as long as he or she reapplies every year.
Tuesday’s speaker, Alyson Miles emphasized an odd quirk of Ohio’s law: Students moving to Ohio—families new to the state—can qualify for an EdChoice Voucher without ever having been enrolled in an Ohio public school as long as they move to the attendance zone of one of the qualifying “failing” schools.
Miles provided mistaken information to those in attendance on Tuesday night in one respect. She repeatedly insisted that vouchers in Ohio are entirely made up of state dollars allocated by the Legislature for that specific purpose. After she was questioned, Miles repeatedly explained that the vouchers do not drain locally voted school levy dollars out of any school district’s budget.
Miles is wrong. In many Ohio school districts, an EdChoice voucher—worth $4,650 per K-8 student and $6,000 per high school student—is more than the amount of state per-pupil funding allocated to the school district by the state funding formula. School districts must make up the difference out of locally voted levy dollars.
In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.” He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid. This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.” (Emphasis is mine.)
The amount of dollars carried away from a local school district can be substantial—especially as Kindergarten classes matriculate through the grades. In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, where Tuesday’s meeting was held, the amount lost to the public schools has been growing by about a million dollars a year—from $1,237,990 in FY16 to $2,256,017 in FY17 to $3,214,454 in FY 18.
Recently in the Washington Post, the director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explained: “Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”
Ohio’s theft of money for vouchers and charters right out of school district budgets punishes the state’s most vulnerable school districts and leaves wealthy exurban districts largely untouched.