Let's translate outrage to action
Where is the outrage?
This is the question William Phillis, Ohio’s guardian of public education, poses at the end of most of his blog posts.
Phillis is the standard-bearer for fairness in school funding. In 1992 he left his post as Ohio’s assistant superintendent of public instruction to lead the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. This alliance of school districts filed suit against the State of Ohio for its failure to meet its constitutional obligation to support public education. In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the DeRolph case, finding that the legislature failed to provide for a “thorough and efficient” system of common schools.
The state legislature has never rectified the problem. In fact, it continues to shortchange public schools and destabilize this cornerstone of our democracy.
Phillis is outraged by the state legislature’s latest travesty: allowing public funds to be used to privatize education through charter schools and vouchers. Privatization has many problems, but the biggest is that it takes money away from children who attend public schools.
The funding system for privatization is crazy. The state mandates a level of funding for private school users but does not provide all of the funds it promises. Instead, it expects local school districts to pay most of the cost. This can create significant hardship for a local school district that receives limited state funds or has a large number of charter school or voucher users. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools have both problems.
This year the legislature guarantees each Ohio charter school student $6,000, and voucher funding per student ranges from $4,900 to $27,000. The CH-UH schools receive about $2,000 in basic state aid per student. The district receives that level of funding for all of the students who live in the district and attend the public schools, as well as for the 400 students who attend charter schools and the 650 students who use a voucher to attend a private school. Unfortunately, the $2,000 in state aid only covers about 30 percent of the tuition promised to a charter school. The other 70 percent comes out of the money that was generated by the public school students. There is a similar shortfall for voucher costs.
In effect, public school students are subsidizing private education for their neighbors. This undermines the capacity of local school districts to provide a quality education. Districts can raise local taxes or cut programs. Privatization perpetuates the equity and adequacy problem.
Sometimes an issue really has to be felt and understood in local terms to catch our attention. Recent data on the cost of privatization to my school district—the CH-UH schools—has moved my concern for privatization from outrage to visceral fear! I’m worried for the future of my school district and community if the legislature does not stop this attack on public education.
Here are the numbers that terrify me. In 2016, the Heights community passed a 5.5-mil property tax increase that will generate about $5.8 million a year for our schools. These precious dollars will not go very far given the cost the district must shoulder for privatization. Last year it transferred about that much—$5.7 million—to private-school operators. This year privatization will cost the district $7.2 million. Remember that 70 percent of that money was supposed to go to the public schools. Public school students will be out more than $4.9 million this year, and what about next year?
If the bill for privatization keeps going up at this rate, there is no way the community will be able to make up for the lost state funds.
Privatization is inefficient, destructive, punitive and inconsistent with a thorough and efficient system of public schools. It’s not sustainable. It’s a misplaced priority that makes the funding system even less equitable and less adequate. It is a real threat to public education and sacrifices the common good.
Public funds for education are scarce. Ohio has underfunded schools for years and, after decades of tax cutting at the state level, public funds for meeting all of the needs of our state are scarce. If lawmakers want all children to have a quality education, they need to invest in the public system, which guarantees access to all.
Citizen action is often the only line of defense when it comes to turning back a damaging policy. We need to face the reality that precious public funds are being diverted from their public purposes, and the losses are significant.
Let our outrage be a call to action!
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.