On Friday, December 16, 2022, Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jaiza Page denied the state’s request that she dismiss the Vouchers Hurt Ohio Lawsuit filed nearly a year ago by a coalition that now includes 130 of the state’s 610 public school districts. The Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit declares that Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program violates the state constitution. The case may now proceed to trial.
The plaintiffs in the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit declare: “The EdChoice Scholarship Program poses an existential threat to Ohio’s public school system. Not only does this voucher program unconstitutionally usurp Ohio’s public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuitions, it does so by depleting Ohio’s foundation funding—the pool of money out of which the state funds Ohio’s public schools… The discrepancy in per pupil foundation funding is so great that some districts’ private school pupils receive, as a group, more in funding via EdChoice Vouchers than Ohio allocates in foundation funding for the entire public school districts where those students reside. This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources, creates an ‘uncommon’, or private system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions, and discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools. Because private schools receiving EdChoice funding are not subject to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws or most other regulations applicable to public schools, these private facilities operate with impunity, exempt from public scrutiny despite the public funding that sustains them.”
Not surprisingly, and also in December of 2022, the Thomas Fordham Institute, a pro-voucher lobbying organization, published a new report by Stephane Lavertu and John Gregg, two professors at the Ohio State University, to dispute the plaintiffs’ arguments.
The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver summarizes the researchers’ three primary findings:
- “Racial segregation in public schools decreased” when private school voucher programs expanded.
- Public “schools don’t lose money when kids take EdChoice scholarships.”
- “Students who stay in public school don’t do worse. The lawsuit sitting before the Franklin County judge didn’t expressly say that districts are harmed academically by the voucher program, but this was something Lavertu looked into.”
What about racial segregation? Staver quotes Professor Lavertu defending his finding that school segregation decreased: “Certainly, at the state level, minority students are more likely to have vouchers… Statewide, we know that disproportionately they go to non-white students.”
Steve Dyer a public schools advocate, blogger, and former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, calls Professor Lavertu’s bluff: “The study compares the racial makeup of voucher students with the statewide racial makeup of Ohio students.” Dyer points out instead that racial segregation is a district-by-district condition; the state’s overall racial makeup is quite irrelevant to what may be happening within each of the state’s 610 school districts. Dyer explains: “There are 95 districts that lose 10 students or more to EdChoice. In 76 of those districts, accounting for 87% of all vouchers given through the program, a higher percentage of white students take vouchers than… (the percentage of white students) in that district. The average difference between (the percentage of) white students taking vouchers and (the percentage of) white students in those 76 districts was 76.2%. That means that in the districts where 87% of voucher students come from, voucher recipients are 76.2 % more likely to be white than their public school counterparts.” Dyer concludes that the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit’s claim that EdChoice vouchers contribute to racial segregation is correct.
What about the effect of EdChoice vouchers on public school funding? Lavertu and Gregg say their study proves that school districts don’t lose money when kids take EdChoice vouchers. How can this be possible? After all, the state has not increased taxes to pay the extra cost. As Staver reminds us, in 2021, the Legislature changed funding mechanism for EdChoice vouchers. Before 2021, the Legislature funded the vouchers directly out of local school district budgets, but in 2021, the state began paying for the ever-increasing number of vouchers right out of the state public school foundation budget. Whether the money was extracted from the local district budgets or is now extracted from the state’s public school budget, how is it possible to contend that the growth of the EdChoice voucher program has not reduced overall public school funding?
I also wonder about the new report’s focus on the statewide fiscal impact of the vouchers rather than the effects (often disequalizing) from school district to school district. Like all school funding systems, Ohio’s is very complicated and affects each district idiosyncratically due to the amount and makeup of the district’s local property tax base. The funding for EdChoice vouchers in Ohio is also variable from district to district.
Steve Dyer interprets the report as an admission that, “EdChoice forces local school districts to rely more on property taxes to pay for educating the students in public schools.” Dyer quotes the 2002 DeRolph decision in which the Ohio Supreme Court declared overreliance on local property taxes unconstitutional: “The overreliance on local property taxes is the fatal flaw that until rectified will stand in the way of constitutional compliance.”
Finally, what about Lavertu and Gregg’s perplexing finding that the growth of EdChoice vouchers to pay for private school tuition has driven an increase in public school test scores? Staver quotes Lavertu: “The average student in an EdChoice district experienced an increase in district-wide achievement… Unfortunately, we are unable to determine how much the positive effect is due to students learning gains as opposed to changes in student composition.”
In a December 30, 2022 column for the Columbus Dispatch, the Fordham Institute’s own Research Director Aaron Churchill tries to spin the meaning of the report’s finding—that the increase in voucher use has driven up public school achievement as measured by test scores—by falling back on the old argument for competition: “First, the achievement of district students modestly rises as a result of EdChoice… (T)he finding might reflect the program’s targeting of lower-performing schools within a district, leaving behind somewhat higher-achieving pupils. It also follows other studies showing that, while not a cure-all, choice programs have a positive ‘competitive effect’ on public schools… (D)istrict students benefit academically when the competition intensifies and schools are motivated to bolster their education offerings.”
If and when the new study by Lavertu and Gregg is ever peer-reviewed, I will be interested to read the analysis. Until then I find myself comparing the study to the facts in my own school district, Cleveland Heights-University Heights (CH-UH), one of the lead plaintiffs in the Voucher’s Hurt Ohio lawsuit.
- As someone who has worked for years in various capacities to mount volunteer-led local school property tax levy campaigns, I am certain that that Steve Dyer is correct: Students taking vouchers away from our school district have increased our district’ s overreliance on local property taxes. The Vouchers Hurt Ohio legal complaint itself cites Cleveland Heights-University Heights’ losses of funding to EdChoice vouchers as an example of the fiscal damage to school district budgets: “The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, for example, is expected to receive from the state of Ohio a total of approximately $5.6 million in foundation funding for Fiscal Year 2022 to educate the 5,000 students who attend its schools. The state of Ohio, however, will pay out over $11 million for private school tuition to the approximately 1,800 EdChoice Voucher recipients residing within the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in Fiscal Year 2022. In other words, approximately twice as much public funding will be paid in Fiscal Year 2022 for private school tuition for CH-UH residents as the foundation funding allotted to the entire student body of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights District.”
- Certainly vouchers are not reducing racial segregation in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools. Steve Dyer’s data confirm that enrollment in CH-UH is 17.5 percent white, but that 90.3 percent of the 1,873 students taking an EdChoice voucher are white.
- Finally, it is impossible for me to believe that students carrying vouchers from the budget of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools are somehow stimulating an improvement in our district’s overall standardized test scores. The treasurer in our school district reported that in 2020, 94 percent of students taking an EdChoice voucher from CH-UH have never been enrolled in our public schools; these students in almost every case have always been enrolled in religious schools.
Josh Cowen is a professor at Michigan State University who has conducted voucher research for two decades and who warns that overall, students do better academically in their neighborhood public schools than by taking a voucher to a private school. Cowen explains: “Large-scale independent studies in D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio show that for kids who left public schools, harmful voucher impacts actually meet or exceed what the pandemic did to test scores…. The newer D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio studies that took place after 2013 and have showed pandemic… sized harm to student test scores (in) all… at-scale voucher programs. What do I mean by ‘at scale?’ I mean that despite limited evidence in those (earlier) pilot programs, vouchers have been steadily expanding across the country, and within states. So those D.C. Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio studies represent our best understanding to date of what happens when you expand vouchers beyond the initial test phase… For the vast majority of kids, they’re better off in public schools. That’s what the latest voucher research shows.”
Cowen warns about trusting voucher reports that are funded by pro-voucher advocacy organizations: “It’s difficult to tell how much money has been spent to advocate for school vouchers over the years. But we know perhaps the biggest single funder… is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. The Bradley Foundation is a little-known group based in Wisconsin and they’ve given tens of millions of dollars to voucher activism over the years. Bradley not only funds voucher activism, it funds voucher research too… Generally speaking, you don’t want activism and research funding to mix. Think about it this way: should the Sackler family fund research on the addictive properties of Oxycontin? Should Exxon fund studies about the existence of climate change?”
When I look at the findings in Lavertu and Gregg’s new report on Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers, I find it unsurprising that the new report was paid for and published by the Thomas Fordham Institute, one of Ohio’s several pro-voucher lobbying organizations.