CH-UH district loses 34 percent of state money to vouchers in 2019

About 45 people gathered at Lee Road Library on March 14 for a LWV forum on the local effects of the state's school voucher program.  (From left, at the front of the room) Moderator Jayne Geneva (at podium), Susie Kaeser of the LWV Education Lobby Corps, CH-UH BOE V.P. James Posch, Ohio State Board of Education member Meryl Johnson and CH-UH CFO/Treasurer Scott Gainer. (Photo Fred D'Ambrosi)

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District estimates that, by 2025, it will be losing about $13.5 million a year in state money to school vouchers. This year, vouchers received more than $7.3 million in state funding, 34 percent of the district's allocation.

Speakers at the March 14 League of Women Voters (LWV) forum on the local effects of Ohio’s school voucher programs had a consistent message: vouchers are draining state money from public schools based on an unfair testing system and laws increasing voucher eligibility.

Most of the audience of about 45 people at the Lee Road Library listened politely and applauded at times. All questions were submitted in writing. There were no pro-voucher panelists.

Panelist Susie Kaeser, who researched the issue as a LWV Education Lobby Corps member and co-convener of the Heights Coalition on Public Education, explained the four voucher programs under state law.

Vouchers allow public funds to be transferred to existing private and parochial schools. Vouchers cannot be used to attend charter schools because charters are free to students. However, the state deducts money from a district’s allocation for each student attending a charter school.

Two voucher programs provide money for children with special needs; one generally, and one specifically for children with autism. Of the four programs, the two most used are Educational Choice (EdChoice) and EdChoice Expansion. EdChoice offers vouchers to students who otherwise would be required to attend a state-designated low-performing public school. The CH-UH district has seven, including Cleveland Heights High School. The Expansion program grants vouchers to students in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty level.

Kaeser used statistics from the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) District Foundation Settlement Report of Feb 22, 2019, to present her case. This year, the state allocated about $21.3 million for 6,637 students in the CH-UH school district, an average of $3,209 per student. Of those, 5,162 attend public schools; the rest are voucher and charter students. Kaeser said the state legislature sets the funding levels for vouchers, and that money is paid out of the district’s allocation. The public schools receive what’s left.

Using averages, Kaeser said 880 EdChoice voucher students receive $4,755 each, while 244 special ed voucher students get $12,985 each, and 351 charter school students receive $7,396 each. That leaves public school students with $2,191 each. Public school students are 78 percent of the total group, but receive 54 percent of the money.

CH-UH School Board Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer Scott Gainer was on the forum panel. In response to a follow-up e-mail question, he said the district spends $20,523 per public school student. (He cited the 2018 ODE Cupp Report.) Gainer said the difference between that per-student total and the per-student state funding is made up with local property tax money.

CH-UH School Board Vice President James Posch, another panelist, said what the district raised with its last levy (about $5.8 million in 2016) “is less than the $7.3 million we pay for Choice.”

Posch said Cleveland Heights High School has been rated a “failing” school based on graduation data from the 2012–15 school years. The state has not used data for the last four years while it changes testing procedures. Posch said the most recent graduation score is C, higher than the state average. He and Kaeser posited that the system penalizes low-income schools and diverse districts.

An audience member asked if having fewer students resulted in some savings. Gainer said it was difficult to plan because voucher students were spread across grades and schools in no predictable way, allowing for little lead time to react.

Kaeser said, “The legislature is charged with providing for a thorough and efficient system of public schools, and by diverting public funds to provide a parallel system of schools . . . you’re completely destroying the efficient side of it.”

Panelist Meryl Johnson, a member of the Ohio State Board of Education, talked about the history of vouchers in Ohio, including her protests against them as a Cleveland public school teacher. She quoted the late Gov. George Voinovich’s 1997 letter to Milwaukee Bishop Anthony Pilla, who was then president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. The governor urged the bishop to gather Catholic leaders and “increase the support for our non-public schools throughout the country.”

“I believe in history,” Johnson said. “As we discuss these things, we need to know why it’s here and how it got here.”

Posch noted that 95 percent of CH-UH voucher money now goes to religious schools.

Kaeser said the number of EdChoice districts in Cuyahoga County is growing as the state uses new data. She said the state removed Cleveland schools from the calculation of the lowest 10 percent, which will raise the curve and include more districts in EdChoice. Shaker Heights, Parma and Bedford will be so designated in the 2019–20 school year.

Video of the March 14 LWV school voucher forum is posted on the League of Women Voters Greater Cleveland YouTube channel, and can be viewed at https://youtu.be/2Y13W3zrayE?t=41.

Fred D'Ambrosi

Fred D'Ambrosi has been an award-winning journalist for 40 years, mostly as a TV news director in Cleveland, D.C., San Diego and Milwaukee. He's enjoyed living in Cleveland Heights since 2015.

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Volume 12, Issue 4, Posted 9:38 AM, 03.26.2019