More Ohio children are using state dollars to pay for private education than ever before.
What began as a $ 5 million pilot to rescue Cleveland children from “failing schools” is now a nationwide voucher scheme for 69,000 children that could cost taxpayers more than $ 628 million for the 2021-2022 school year.
“I challenge you to find another area of the Ohio budget that has seen such a steep increase,” said Dan Heintz, a history teacher at Chardon Local Schools near Cleveland.
But Ohio is not an anomaly. It was an outstanding year for school election advocates across the country.
At least 50 bills have been introduced in 30 states, according to a national nonprofit called Ed Choice. Even deep blue California is preparing an initiative that would transfer government dollars to savings accounts that parents could spend on private tuition.
Proponents of school choice say this is the future. They want Ohio, and ultimately the country, to give a voucher to every child who wants one.
“People cut their cables and buy individual channels and personalize what they want for their own entertainment,” said Greg Lawson, a research fellow at the conservative Buckeye Institute. “It’s about the choice. It’s about empowering people. People want choice in their food, in their entertainment. That should also be education. “
Ohio’s constitution promises “a thorough and efficient system of common schools across the state”. Public school advocates say those words are a mandate to fix underperforming schools – especially those that are consistently on the EdChoice scholarship list.
Seventy percent of coupons in Ohio come from 21 of the 610 school districts. The majority of these students live in poverty and all but one of these districts are majority minority districts.
“Either the way we describe schools as failing is imprecise, or we allow our black students to attend failing schools,” said Heintz. “It’s the opposite of social responsibility.”
How coupons have grown
Ohio’s first nationwide school voucher program was launched in 2005 to provide “poor children in failing public schools” with quality education, according to the articles published at the time. Around 3,000 scholarships were used in the first year.
For the 2021-2022 school year, around 69,000 students are expected to use one of the state’s five voucher programs. Ohio will also provide their school buses and a range of reimbursements for administrative and incidental expenses.
The total cost to Ohio taxpayers is likely to exceed $ 628 million.
“Something’s just wrong,” said Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “Even if the money may not be withdrawn directly from a school district at the moment, there is still limited government funding for education.”
And the rules governing eligibility become a little more extensive every year.
Initially, only students who had been assigned to schools in an “academic emergency” – the lowest rating in the state – for three consecutive years could apply for a voucher.
A year later, it became either Academic Emergency Schools or Academic Guard for three years. Six months later, the requirement dropped to two of the last three years.
In 2013 the legislature created an income-based scholarship for all children regardless of their home district. Then they removed the requirement that kindergarten children be enrolled in their local public school first, and later extended it to high school students.
Today, about half of families in Ohio are eligible for an income-based voucher, as the limit for a family of four is $ 65,500 of annual household income.
Coupons are a better choice for some, but not all
It would be difficult to scale back Ohio’s school voucher programs.
Taking away a coupon worth $ 6,000, $ 12,000, or even $ 18,000 per year is not something elected officials like to do.
In fact, hundreds of families huddled into crowded meeting rooms in January 2020 as state lawmakers debated whether Ohio’s list of underperforming schools had gotten out of hand.
One of these mothers was Kate Schwartz.
Her daughter had mental health issues related to learning disabilities that resulted in her struggling through public school in Toledo. But when she accepted an EdChoice scholarship to go to Central Catholic High School, she flourished.
“She’s a child who went from 1.7 (grade point average) in 8th grade to almost a grade point average of 3.0 now,” said Schwartz. “I can tell you she wouldn’t be well without Central Catholic.”
But most children who take advantage of EdChoice scholarships perform worse on state-standardized tests than their classmates in public schools, according to a 2020 study by the Cincinnati Enquirer.
In 88% of Ohio cities that use coupons, the data showed better test scores for public schools. And when it came to Ohio’s eight largest cities, five of the districts (Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Toledo and Cincinnati) reported higher levels of performance.
Akron City Schools showed the biggest difference, scoring almost 8 percentage points more than local private schools.
Public school advocates say this is because many of the schools on the coupon list don’t fail. The criteria for listing are wrong, not the schools.
“I think public schools are underfunded,” said Karen Rego, a teacher at Cleveland Heights-University Heights.
Moving for a voucher
In Rego’s district, south of Cleveland, the majority of students identify as multiracial or minority, but 91% of school vouchers go to white students attending a handful of religious schools.
“You are not poor. You are not dissatisfied with what we are doing,” said Rego. “Most of these families never intended to come to Cleveland Heights. They came here to attend their own school without paying anything.”
Every child who is registered for an eligible school is entitled to a voucher regardless of income. But people like Cropper, Rego, and Heintz believe that most Ohioans haven’t stopped thinking about what that means: kids live in million dollar homes while taking money from the state.
“You will not be rescued from a failing school,” said Heintz. “They’re deducted from a tuition bill. Period.”
The end of public education
Ed Choice’s National Director of Research believes the people who say school choices are destroying public education are a bit like Chicken Little, who always thought the sky was falling.
“I think a lot of them believe that if all the kids could get coupons tomorrow, they’d all be leaving public school,” said Mike McShane. “I just don’t think that’s true.”
His nonprofit’s own surveys found that 45% of parents would still choose their assigned school.
He doesn’t see the choice of school as competition between us and them.
“The Indian restaurant competes with the Mexican shop down the street,” said McShane. “Kind of, but not really.”
We don’t shy away from students choosing one college over another. Why should their earlier years be any different?
“I think people are confusing the idea of public education with a certain type of placement system,” said McShane. “We want a system that is accessible to all and that gives our children the knowledge they need to be successful. For me, public education is the way to achieve this goal.”
The impending legal battle
Democrats say the state has an obligation to public education and spending more than $ 2 billion on private schooling over the past decade would detract from that goal.
“I went to private schools, I taught in private schools, I sent my son to private school and it was my choice,” said Senator Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo. “I didn’t expect the public to pay for it.”
Fedor believes the way Ohio has expanded these programs is against the state’s constitution. And a coalition of 75 Ohio public schools, led by attorney Bill Phillis, are planning to sue it.
According to Phillis, rescuing poor children from failing school districts was “just a trick”.
“Voucher advocates really never cared about poor children in slums,” Phillis said. “It’s really about getting public funding to enable private training.”
What happens next?
Phillis hasn’t filed his lawsuit yet, but Republicans already have a bill to create a universal voucher system here in Ohio.
Even the strongest supporters of House Bill 290 admitted during this general assembly that it is a long way at best.
It’s more of a test balloon than an actual universal coupon funding scheme, Lawson said. Ohio would have to change its taxation (lower property taxes, increase state taxes) and that would likely require a constitutional change.
Still, it’s not a very far-fetched idea. Florida, Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia, and Maryland all expanded their voucher programs over the past year.
McShane believes recent school board disputes over issues such as masks and vaccines have driven more people – even more Democrats – into the school election camp.
“Opinions are so divided on these issues, but schools have a choice to make,” said McShane. “We’re starting to realize that we don’t necessarily have to have this one system that we’re all fighting for.”
Anna Staver and Grace Deng are reporters for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal, and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.