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.

Blaine Amendments Protect Religious Liberty, Prohibit Establishing Religion via School Vouchers

So-called Blaine Amendments in many of the state constitutions prohibit the diversion of taxpayer dollars to religious schools.  Over the weekend, The Hill published a commentary on the state Blaine Amendments by Robert G. Natelson , a retired professor of constitutional law and a fellow at the the far-right Heartland Institute. Natelson argues that the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn the Blaine Amendments in several state constitutions because they were created in an era of anti-Catholic bias and at a time when public schools reflected their Protestant beginnings.

Several times in the 1870s and 1880s, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, James G. Blaine proposed a federal constitutional amendment to prohibit the expenditure of public dollars at religious schools.  While the amendment to the U.S. Constitution was never adopted, a number of the states passed so-called Blaine Amendments to their constitutions. In many those states today, the Blaine Amendment has been interpreted to mean that the state constitution prohibits the use of school vouchers in sectarian schools.

Diane Ravitch, the historian of education, responds to Natelson at the Huffington Post. She agrees with Natelson about the origin of the Blaine Amendments:, “Natelson is right that the public schools of the 19th century were deeply imbued with Protestant teachings and practices… The arrival of large numbers of Irish immigrants in the 1840s, mostly Catholic, concurred with the beginnings of public school systems in urban areas…. The Blaine Amendment appealed to anti-Catholic sentiment among the dominant Protestant majority….”

Ravitch explains, however, that public schools are no longer dominated by any religion, nor do they incorporate religious practices.  Courts, according to Ravitch, ought to consider the reality that today, public schools have shed religious practices, particularly since the 1962, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Engel v Vitale, that banned school prayer.  Today public schools are expected to protect the right of each child to worship according to the child’s or family’s religious beliefs and to protect the U.S. Constitutional ban on religious education.

There is widespread acceptance today in public schools and across U.S. religious bodies that the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion applies in schools operated in the public sphere by government. Here is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  The first part of the First Amendment (referred to as the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s in any way favoring—“establishing”— any particular religion, and the second clause guarantees residents of the United States the right to worship according to their own traditions.

Ravitch explains today’s reality that by law, students are protected from religious bias in their public schools:  “The motives of James G. Blaine or Catherine Beecher Stowe or Horace Mann or Henry Bernard or any of the other 19ht century founders of public schools are irrelevant today. They matter less than the reality and practices of public schools today that the Blaine Amendments permit and protect. Because of the states’ Blaine Amendments, public schools across the nation welcome children who are of every religion or no religion, whether Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, or any other belief.  To rule against the Blaine Amendments would open the door to subsidizing religious schools with public dollars.”  Many promoters of school vouchers, including Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, want to eliminate the state-by-state Blaine Amendments as a way to ensure that school vouchers are permissible in every state.

Ravitch writes, “If the High Court reviews the state Blaine Amendments, I hope the Justices will recognize that the founders knowingly decided to avoid state entanglement with religious establishment… Our public schools are no longer the Protestant public schools that Bishop Hughes fought against. They are an integral part of our democratic society. They are a public good, like the services of police and firefighters, like public beaches, libraries, and parks.  Separation of church and state is a valuable principle that protects the church schools from government intervention and mandates. Religious liberty is best protected by keeping it separate from government dollars and government control.”

Today America’s major religious denominations have themselves strongly endorsed the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom in the public schools. Ensuring that public schools do not “establish” or favor one set of religious beliefs over another means that parents will not have to worry that a school will teach religious beliefs contrary to the tradition of their family.

In 1995 the First Amendment Center convened a group of religious and educational leaders who endorsed a set of principles (Finding Common Ground, pp. 11-13)

  1. “Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person.
  2. “Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation.
  3. “Public schools must model the democratic process and constitutional principles in the development of policies and curricula.
  4. “Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.”

The religious organizations that subscribed to these principles were: the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Christian Coalition, the Council on Islamic Education, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Just last month The Christian Century editorialized supporting our nation’s public schools that serve children from many religions and opposing school vouchers. The Christian Century describes itself as a magazine that has, “For decades… informed and shaped progressive, mainline Christianity.” Its mission statement declares, “Committed to thinking critically and living faithfully, the magazine explores what it means to believe and live out the Christian faith in our time… (T)he Century is both loyal to the church and open to the world.”

In its recent editorial, The Christian Century affirms the role of public education and castigates vouchers, but the editorial focuses on the right of every child in our society to a quality public education.  The magazine does not assume any presence of religion in public schools but instead emphasizes the danger when meager public education dollars are used to privatize schools, whether or not they are religious: “(N)owhere is there demonstrative evidence that the mechanisms of market choice and privatization have improved education overall. Their downside, however, is quite clear: wherever charters and vouchers operate, they siphon money from the public school systems which are charged with educating every student, regardless of physical or mental ability, income, or parent involvement. The schools that have demonstrated real reform in recent years are ones that have focused over the long haul on the unglamorous tasks of setting high goals, finding and supporting excellent principals, continually supporting and training teachers, and staying connected to parents and community. Supporting public schools in that hard work is the best focus for government dollars.”

The Christian Century endorses justice for all children, whatever their families’ religious beliefs, in democratically owned and operated public schools designed to protect the rights and serve the needs of our nation’s 50 million students.

Update: Yesterday afternoon in the “Answer Sheet” column at the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss re-printed Diane Ravitch’s Huffington Post column and added an introduction about the timeliness of this issue. Strauss reports that the U.S. Supreme Court is soon scheduled to begin hearing a case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, which involves the constitutionality of Missouri’s Blaine Amendment.  Arguments are set to begin on April 19, and Strauss explains that, “the decision could determine the fate of Blaine Amendments across the country.”  Strauss adds another piece of important legal history, citing a quite recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed the Establishment Clause itself in relation to public education: “In the landmark 1947 Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing case, the Supreme court wrote that the Establishment Clause does create a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, and that means that, at the very least, no ‘tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.'”

It is very much worth reading Ravitch’s column here or reprinted in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” column with Strauss’s introduction.