A closer look at the controversy surrounding private school voucher access

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series about changes in public school funding in Ohio and the likely effects of these changes on suburban school districts like Bay Village. In Part 2, we’ll hear from Superintendent of Bay Village City School District Scot Prebles and Bay Village School Treasurer Meghan Rhode to get their thoughts on the EdChoice Scholarship voucher expansion’s impact on students and our community.

Governor Mike DeWine and Ohio’s Statehouse legislators have changed the EdChoice Scholarship voucher program so that many more families, at much higher income brackets, can opt to send their K-12th grade kids to private schools using taxpayer dollars.

This expansion has been a highly controversial move, and it’s worth exploring the specific impacts these changes will have on students attending Bay Village Public Schools, their families, and our community at large.

How big are the changes? Pretty big. Initially, a family of four’s household income could not exceed $69,375 to qualify for vouchers - which is 250% of Federal Poverty Guidelines. Now, the limit has increased to 450% of Federal Poverty Guidelines. That means a family of four, with a combined income of $135,000, is eligible to receive private school vouchers if they so choose.

For many, the controversy is not about supplying private school vouchers to students in low-income communities trapped in under-performing public schools. Vouchers often help these students gain access to better quality educational options.

Also, most citizens at all income levels value the contributions of high-performing private schools to their students and communities. Finally, even the most staunch supporters of Ohio’s public schools system are aware and eager to overcome its on-going challenges.

The controversy is about whether or not Ohio legislators are prioritizing private school funding over adequate public school funding, thus crippling public school administrators’ ability to provide the high levels of education students deserve and taxpayers expect.

Skeptics also do not think that taxpayers with kids enrolled in public schools should have to subsidize private school education for students not only from wealthier families, but often already enrolled in private schools prior to the EdChoice voucher expansion.

Many also believe the nearly $2 billion cost of the expanded voucher program over two years is unsustainable, unconstitutional, and to the detriment of the vast majority of students, communities, and taxpayers in a variety of ways.

Proponents of the expanded EdChoice Scholarship program, with Governor DeWine and Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman at the helm, do not agree. They say additional vouchers will not hurt public school funding, will save taxpayers’ money, and give parents more choice in how and where they want their kids to be educated.

In fact, these lawmakers and others are working hard to give all Ohio families, regardless of income, universal access to private school vouchers on a sliding scale. 

In his Jan. 1, 2023, State of the State Address to the Ohio Legislature, Governor DeWine stated, “Now, children have unique needs, so we want families to have the opportunity to send their children to a school that best meets those needs. That is why our budget proposal includes an historic investment in the EdChoice scholarship program by expanding eligibility to at or below 400% of the poverty level. This investment will allow more families than ever to take advantage of the scholarship and find the best school for their children.”

Voucher expansion advocates are angry and frustrated with what they believe to be the public school system’s lack of accountability, transparency, performance and efficiency. They are disenchanted with public school students’ marked academic decline during COVID, and what they view as teacher unions prioritizing political “wokeness” over academics.

Some advocates believe that students would be better served in taxpayer-funded religious private schools than they are attending taxpayer-funded secular public schools.  

Echoing Governor DeWine’s sentiments, Aaron Churchill, Ohio Research Director of the conservative education policy non-profit, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said, “Under former policy, the program was quite limited. Now, all families will have access to financial assistance that allows them to find a school that meets their kids’ needs. That’s a big step forward in terms of putting parents in the drivers’ seat in directing their kids’ education. It will also put more healthy pressure on traditional districts to improve, which haven’t faced much competition in the past.”

Opponents of the expanded voucher program say it does the exact opposite of what supporters predict. They believe that a large increase in private school vouchers, along with other unexpected legislative challenges, will eventually become a disaster for the approximately 80-89% of kids who attend public schools.  

Anti-voucher advocates contend that private schools are not required to be nearly as transparent, accountable, or equitable as public schools (which are required by law to accept and properly educate every student in their district for free – regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, income level, disability, etc.) while accounting for every dollar spent. Private schools can choose which students with vouchers to accept, choose which students to dismiss, and choose the amount of tuition to charge enrolling students. 

Vouchers Hurt Ohio is a coalition of 130 school districts (out of 611) involved in a lawsuit against the state for the EdChoice Scholarship expansion. They argue that the Ohio Constitution requires the state legislature to provide for “a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state” and that this cannot happen if private school funding takes precedence over that of public schools via the EdChoice voucher expansion.

In other words, each dollar spent on vouchers is one less dollar available to public schools. They say expanded vouchers also violate the Ohio Constitution by blurring the lines between church and state.

On their website, vouchershurtohio.com, the organization states that the expanded voucher program “has now become a refund and rebate program to reimburse families already committed to placing their children in private schools. The drain on public schools and children has been extremely harmful, growing from $42 million a year in 2008, to $350 million this year.” 

Policy Matters Ohio is a non-profit policy research institute that also opposes voucher expansion. Group members are working hard to overcome what they say is Ohio’s long-term legacy of inequitable, inadequate public school funding. They say that, along with COVID learning setbacks, is undermining the very important role public schools play in society as a foundational public institution. Diverting revenue from public to private schools hurts the large majority of students, especially those living in Ohio’s 11 rural school districts that have no private schools whatsoever. 

Rather than expanding private school voucher access to even wealthy families that don’t need it, Policy Matters Ohio, and other public school advocate groups,want to see state funding focused first on upholding the Fair School Funding Plan (FSFP).

They say, “After decades of non-compliance with Ohio Supreme Court rulings, the legislature is on the brink of finally meeting its constitutional responsibility to fully fund Ohio’s public schools.”

Furthermore, “When fully implemented, the six-year FSFP will correct the overreliance on local property taxes, eliminate funding caps on districts, and base funding on per-pupil cost estimates that more accurately reflect what it takes to educate a diverse student.”

Public school administrators will no longer have to reserve a portion of levy funds from their own school district levy funds for private and charter school vouchers. That financial responsibility will instead fall on the state.

Also, the new formula used by the FSFP takes into account what it actually costs to educate a student in each district when determining state funding assistance. Bay Village, for example, spends $14,100/year per K-12 pupil.

Despite this legislative victory, anti-voucher expansion advocates are deeply concerned that the Ohio legislature is more interested in promoting private school access than meeting its promise to fully fund public schools within six years. 

Part 2 of this article series will take a closer look at how the EdChoice Scholarship voucher expansion impacts our Bay Village City School District, and why it matters.

Elaine Kosco

Elaine Kosco is a Bay Village resident and received a certificate in Community Journalism: Reporting for Civic Power, a program offered by Cuyahoga Community College with support from Neighborhood Media Foundation, Signal Cleveland, and Journalism + Design at The New School

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Volume 16, Issue 1, Posted 9:50 AM, 01.16.2024