Fair education policy needs committed allies

The free-market policy gurus who sold charters, vouchers and testing to the Ohio legislature have created a profitable, entrenched and destructive monster. It is going to take all of us to stop this callous ransacking of the public purse that now benefits education business at the expense of the common good.

This is a moral fight—a social justice fight—that will need to be won in the political arena. It will take courage and organized, sustained opposition.

Successful political fights need to rally allies to their cause, and a good source of support in any political campaign is the people who are hurt by the policy.

In this case, the injured parties are not just the students but the communities that are most affected by a policy that puts the financial burden for charters and vouchers on local school districts, without giving the districts any authority regarding how those precious resources are used. The transfer of funds to nonpublic schools saps precious education dollars out of local districts. It diminishes public education and shifts even more of the burden for paying for public education to the local taxpayer.

While this issue affects all 612 school districts in Ohio, I was interested in finding allies that are close by. So I decided to analyze how this policy affects the 31 school districts in Cuyahoga County. The Foundation Settlement Report and the Cupp Report on the Ohio Department of Education website gave me the data I needed to follow the money. I was able to use these reports to convert the loss of funds to charters and vouchers into a loss per pupil for each district.

I am especially concerned about the effect on poor children. To explore this issue, I identified the poverty rate for each school district in the county and then calculated for each district the dollars lost to vouchers and charters on a per-student basis. I ranked the districts by their poverty rate and looked for patterns in the funds lost. The numbers were dramatic.

The data deserves a close reading, but three important findings stood out:

  • Every school district is losing funds. While districts vary widely in the students they serve and the loss of state funds, tax dollars are precious everywhere and any loss is significant.
  • The system is particularly damaging to school districts with high percentages of poor children. High-poverty school districts lose the most money. Public school children with the greatest needs are subsidizing private education, and it is costing them a lot.
  • The effect of charters and vouchers depends on who lives in a school district. Each district has its own dynamic and can be at risk of losing funds, not just the eight districts affected by EdChoice vouchers, which are tied to test scores.

When I compared the funds lost by districts in the quartile with the highest poverty rates to the quartile with the lowest, I found plenty of data that suggests we are cheating poor children. Five of the eight school districts in the quartile with the lowest poverty rates—3.5 to 12.3 percent—lost less than $120 per child, with the highest loss being $365 in Beachwood. By contrast, the per-student loss in the eight school districts with the highest poverty rates—65 to 100 percent—ranged from $509 per child in Bedford to $3,895 per child in Cleveland! Six of the eight districts in Cuyahoga County that lost more than $1,000 per child were in the highest-poverty quartile.

The other six high-poverty districts included Cleveland Heights-University Heights, which, with a 67 percent poverty rate, had a per-pupil funding loss of $1,120. Garfield Heights (72.9 percent) lost $948 per student, Maple Heights (84 percent) lost $1,410, and Euclid (75 percent) and East Cleveland (100 percent) each lost about $2,600 per student. Warrensville Heights (73 percent) lost $3,018 per student.

The kids who need the most are losing the most.

Federal funds to local school districts are largely targeted to help meet the educational needs of poor children. The Cupp Report provided the per-pupil federal funding level for each district. I was distressed to see that the money extracted from high-poverty districts for vouchers and charters often exceeded the federal assistance to each district!

State education policy has effectively wiped out the impact of supplemental federal funding for poor children.

If you believe in public schools and an even playing field, you are an ally. Please help to end this policy scandal.

Susie Kaeser

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.

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Volume 9, Issue 8, Posted 6:24 PM, 07.28.2016