Cutting funds will not improve schools
Resilience is an essential quality for surviving adversity, and I'm worried. Are our public schools resilient enough to survive the constant attacks by the Ohio legislature? Our schools are suffering from a regime that uses testing as a substitute for support, unfairly labels schools and children and communities as failed, ties high-stakes decisions with real consequences to an unreliable testing system, and then gives away public funds to private and charter schools with no oversight or accountability. That’s how crazy it is.
This route is expensive and violates our widely held belief that the public purse is sacred and should be used as wisely as possible, and it is destabilizing an essential institution.
The EdChoice voucher program is the latest threat. Ohio’s voucher program punishes schools with low test performance by giving vouchers to students who reside in that school’s attendance area. It encourages people to take cash out of local school districts to fund private and parochial school scholarships. Even if the public school's rating improves, vouchers are guaranteed for the full length of the voucher holder’s education. There is no requirement that the student who uses public funds ever attended that public school or ever intended to.
Public funds now flow to unaccountable private schools, reducing resources available to the schools that performance data suggest need that money. Many voucher scholarships are used in religious schools, violating the separation of church and state. When state education dollars intended for public schools go to private education, the state abdicates its responsibility to fund an effective system of public schools and shifts even more of the school-funding burden to local taxpayers. The state contributes only 18 percent of the money needed to run CH-UH district schools, and this amount shrinks each time a dollar is transferred out. It is a financially and ethically costly consequence of high-stakes testing.
Ohio requires local school districts to use their state funds to subsidize private education. This year, the state will provide the CH-UH City School District with $2,550 for each student enrolled in the district and for each voucher student, but the state guarantees that every K-8 voucher student will receive a $4,650 scholarship. Local districts are expected to make up the difference out of the rest of their state allocation. That means an additional $2,100 slated for the CH-UH public schools will instead follow each voucher student.
The voucher program has been around for several years but did not affect our school district until two years ago. There are now five EdChoice schools. Last year, 66 residents of the district used vouchers at a cost of $340,000 to CH-UH schools, and, as of mid-August of this year, 286 students residing in the Heights have received vouchers for the upcoming school year, which will more than quadruple the money lost to this program. Voucher recipients will include the 66 previous recipients, 149 fnew kindergarteners, and five other students. Of the kindergarteners, 113 will be enrolled in religious schools.
The loss of students to private schools using public funds does not translate into savings for the district. First, many families benefiting from vouchers never intended to send their children to public schools, and, second, the loss of students increases costs, because the school system’s operating costs are spread over fewer students.
Last year, the Heights district was allocated $19 million in state funds, but $5.5 million of that allocation never came to the schools. Instead, those dollars went to state-mandated choices—charter schools, open enrollment, and a variety of scholarship offerings, including EdChoice—where the guaranteed per-pupil contribution far exceeded the funds those students generated for the district. This year the loss will exceed $6 million.
The constant erosion of public funding jeopardizes public education. The Ohio legislature now says public isn’t really that important. Nor, apparently, is accountability for public funds. The legislature’s reckless use of precious public funds makes its stated commitment to accountability a farce. Public school children must be tested and labeled so their teachers and schools can be blamed and punished, but public coffers are now open to unaccountable charter and religious schools, no questions asked. This double standard is intolerable.
Public education, a source of stability, is under attack, and this attack undercuts hope for a more equal society where everyone has opportunities, not just those who have always had them. The essence of democracy is lost.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.