Group That Won School-Funding Suit Now Challenging Private School Vouchers
Above photo: Protesters hold up signs at a rally for increased school funding at the Statehouse in 2004. Adjusted for inflation, state funding for Ohio schools rose in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but since the Great Recession, inflation-adjusted funding has slightly fallen. Tom Dodge/Dispatch file photo.
NOTE: Popular Resistance supports full funding of public education and opposes vouchers. All students should have a high-quality public education.
The same coalition that successfully sued the state a generation ago over an unconstitutional school-funding system now is putting together a new lawsuit challenging the legality of Ohio’s school voucher program.
“The vouchers are causing harm to the students that are left in the public school districts, reducing the availability of resources that school districts have,” said Bill Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding.
“And, of course, there’s a double whammy now with the reduction of appropriations for primary and secondary education,” he added, noting $300 million in K-12 funding cuts announced last week stemming from reduced state revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program redirects taxpayer money from public schools and gives it to parents to help them pay tuition to private schools. Started as an experimental program during the 1990s in Cleveland, vouchers essentially are now available to families in all poorly performing public schools.
But that list has exploded in recent years to more than 1,200 individual schools, including some in high-performing districts such as Dublin and Upper Arlington. Lawmakers in both parties say such a rapid expansion was never intended, but they couldn’t agree on a way to fix the problem beyond freezing it at the current level until next spring.
The coalition sent messages this week seeking support from Ohio’s 600-plus public school superintendents, saying, “We cannot stand silent witness to the systematic dismantling of the public school system.”
The lawsuit, expected in a few weeks, already has support from both teachers unions in the state.
“We’ve seen the consequences of diverting hundreds of millions of dollars in public school funding to unaccountable private schools: larger classes, fewer electives, fewer teachers and support staff, and older technology and equipment. At a time when the governor is imposing emergency budget cuts, we can’t afford to give vital funding away to private schools,” said Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, also cited the recent budget cuts, which are likely to grow substantially after the state’s new fiscal year starts July 1.
“Vouchers just exacerbate that problem. When you’ve got limited resources, you’ve really got to be focusing them on the 90% of children in Ohio public schools,” he said.
Voucher supporters say the impending litigation is unwarranted.
“It’s an all-time low for government school activists to try to rip low-income and special-needs students out of their schools right now,” said Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values.
“It’s clear that this special-interest group cares less about what’s best for kids, and more about their own narrow social agenda. Ohio’s EdChoice program is a lifeline to tens of thousands of families. It allows underprivileged and underserved children the opportunity to find an education that best meets their needs.”
Senate President Larry Obhof was similarly critical.
“Ohio’s voucher system has been in place for years, is constitutional, and withstood a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court nearly two decades ago. It would be a misuse of the courts to ask them to replace their policy preferences for those of the legislature,” the Medina Republican said.
“It is hard to see what purpose this serves other than to divide our society at a time when we should all be working together.”
Robert Alt, president and chief executive officer of free market Buckeye Institute, said, “This is the wrong lawsuit at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the educational problems caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic, a special interest coalition wants to consolidate its own power at the expense of parents and their students’ education.”
House Speaker Larry Householder said, “The Ohio House has been at the forefront of efforts to reform the EdChoice program, including the deduct-and-transfer method used to fund traditional EdChoice scholarships.”
He noted a plan to base vouchers on student income, rather than on whether they lived in the district of a “failing” public school, passed the House 88-7. That alternative was endorsed by the Ohio Superintendents Association, Ohio Association of School Business Officials, the Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio Education Association and Ohio Federation of Teachers.
“We continue to believe our proposal represents a positive step forward for Ohio’s schools and remain hopeful it can be signed into law this year,” Householder said.
The Cleveland Heights/University Heights district is often viewed as a poster child for the voucher problem. The district says it received $21 million in basic state aid for the 2019-20 school year but lost over $12 million to students who live in the district but attend private schools. And the district saw another $1.5 million disappear from the state cuts.
“It’s hard to see how the state is holding up its responsibility to ensure that public schools are adequately funded,” said the Heights Coalition for Public Education.
The group Phillis directs challenged the state school-funding method in the early 1990s and wound up winning four times in the Ohio Supreme Court. But while he credits the state with building hundreds of new buildings and making other changes, Phillis said state officials never met the constitutional requirement to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public schools.
Combined with charter schools — privately run but taxpayer funded — the commitment to more and more voucher schools just puts Ohio further from meeting the constitutional mandate, he said.
“Ohio can’t afford three systems of education,” Phillis said.