Private school vouchers, part 2

Bay Schools superintendent alarmed at unexpected changes to public school funding

Part 2 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.

Bay Village City School District Superintendent Scot Prebles’ eyes sparkle when he talks about his love for Bay Village and its residents’ commitment to public education.

“Bay Village is a unique community,” said Prebles. “Bay High graduates leave the village to further their education and begin their careers, and then return home when it’s time to raise their own families. They know our community is safe and our district is high achieving, and they appreciate that. These alumni expect their kids to receive the same top-notch education they experienced.”

It’s one of the reasons he recently moved to Bay himself. It’s also one of the reasons Prebles decided to take on completion of the district's long-term Strategic Plan while launching a 7.2 mil operating levy campaign, simultaneously, shortly after his arrival.

On Nov. 8, 2022, Issue 3 passed by a wide margin of 57.76% to 42.24%. The next day, Bay Village Schools' blog reported Prebles said, “We are grateful for the support this community continues to generate for our students and programming. This is a special place.” It literally “took a village” to achieve both goals.

In Part 1 of this report, we looked into the controversy behind Ohio’s school voucher expansion plans (Westlake/Bay Village Observer, Volume 16, Issue 1). In Part 2, we look at how legislative plans made at the state level – including voucher expansion and other plans to fund education in Ohio – affect city school funding plans across the state … even here, in Prebles’ beloved Bay Village.

Prebles and Bay Schools Treasurer Meghan Rohde are alarmed about several unanticipated legislative hits to public school funding, and how they will affect the district’s ability to properly educate students at such a high level. 

From the district's perspective, statewide changes have prioritized private school funding over that of public schools. Prebles is a huge advocate of the Fair School Funding Plan (FSFP) and played a major advisory role in its development.

However, he and Rohde say instead of fully phasing in the FSFP, legislators have chosen to increase funding for private school vouchers.

“When it comes to the funding of public school districts, state legislators are playing chess, while the rest of us are playing checkers,” said Prebles, “To make things even more difficult, the rules keep changing, which makes it difficult – if not impossible – for public education to keep up.”

While quick to recognize the value of high-quality private schools, Prebles states that, “The financial pot is not changing. Each dollar going toward private school vouchers is one less dollar available for public school districts.” This is especially troubling considering there is no official cap on the number of private school vouchers that can be distributed.

Furthermore, Rohde reports that two-thirds of Ohio voucher recipients never attended public schools in the first place. 

A June 5 Ideastream Public Media interview revealed that a school voucher brief by Dr. Howard B. Fleeter of the Ohio Education Policy Institute found the percentage of low-income voucher recipients is actually declining, despite promises that expanded vouchers would provide better educational options to vulnerable populations.

According to Columbus Dispatch’s Anna Staver’s article, “Ohio’s New Universal Voucher Program is Already Over-Budget”, as of mid-September, “With more than a month left for parents to enroll, Ohio’s universal voucher program appears to already be more expensive than estimated. … [T]he state has received applications totaling $432 million for the 2023 school year. That’s $34 million more than the LSC (Legislative Service Commision) forecasted. And interest in the EdChoice Expansion scholarships isn’t slowing.”

Prebles thinks this escalating cost of vouchers is unsustainable in the long term, and will divert frugally-budgeted state revenue away from all of Ohio’s public education institutions (and the taxpayers who fund them), just like our Bay Village’s $7.2 mill levy – and redistribute those planned program dollars to fund private school voucher expansion instead.

Legislators driving the expanded voucher plan claim it’s less expensive to send children to private schools because they are able to run more efficiently with less bureaucracy. A January 2021 Columbus Dispatch article reported that Senate President Matt Huffman, known as the "school voucher guy" in the Ohio Senate, supported spending more money if it produced better results.

According to an October report by Statehouse News Bureau’s Karen Kasler, Huffman said, “If you look at it in the short term and then in the long term, the short term answer is the state has plenty of money. [And] in the long run, the taxpayer saves a lot of money. We’re going to have the money to pay for it. The taxpayers are better off in the long run. I hope more people take advantage of it if they want to.”

Huffman also claimed, in an April 25 school voucher report, that if the state spends $13,000 to $14,000 per public student per year: “Taking a $7,500, which is for high school, or a $5,500 for grade school, is always going to save taxpayers money.”

Prebles and Rohde, along with several area superintendents, teacher unions, and public education policy advocates, vehemently refute this claim. The coalition is unified in the belief that the opposite is true: that expanded access to vouchers is more expensive, undermines our local public school funding plans, and is a less efficient use of public dollars than the levy plans they defund. 

Treasurer Rohde shared a pie chart that depicts state vs. local funding for Bay Schools.

Of the robust $39,904,572 total revenue for fiscal year 2023, most funds (78%) came from local property taxes (this includes the recent levy funds), and about 20% came from the state of Ohio. The state money is used for general district expenses along with student wellness, gifted education, career technical education, English learners programs, and a few others.

Interestingly, Rohde anticipates that Bay Schools' “enrollment will stay steady into the future and that our state funding will stay steady as well.”

However, she is concerned that “the state is awarding a higher amount per student for voucher students versus what they give Bay Village Schools per student.” It is a sizable difference as depicted by the attached bar chart.

According to the 2023 State Report Card, it costs $14,100 to educate each Bay Schools' K-12 student per year. Of this amount, nearly all students, regardless of income, are now eligible for up to the following amounts listed in parentheses in the graph above. However, state funding (blue portion) for Bay Schools persistently falls short. More specifically, $4,184 short for each K-8 pupil and $6,426 short for each 9-12 pupil. 

The bar chart reveals that public schools need to generate extra funds (green portion) to educate a student, that the total is far higher than that of private schools, and that almost all of those extra funds come from local property taxes (Data source: Meghan Rohde).  

Superintendent Prebles believes education funding policy at the state level has put many cities across Ohio in the same budgetary position in which Bay finds itself now: short of the levy-approved funds to maintain the top-notch education the city’s voters expect.

“You can only go back to local taxpayers so many times,” said Prebles. “If the state doesn’t change the way public school districts are funded so that we can properly educate the next generation of students, programming cuts are inevitable – even for district’s like Bay, labeled as ‘wealthy’ by those that distribute necessary funds.”

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 2, Posted 10:19 AM, 02.06.2024