Privatization consumes essential public resources

Ohio’s constitution provides for a thorough and efficient system of public schools, but state lawmakers subverted this essential responsibility when they allowed public education funds to be transferred to private education providers in the form of vouchers and tuition payments to charter schools.

They justified privatization of this public good as a way to increase competition and thereby improve education. The thinking was faulty and the results are terrible for children and communities. The public system is held accountable and being bled dry, while private and charter operators enjoy unfettered access to public resources.

Some good news is that people seem to be falling out of love with charter schools. This fall, enrollment in the Heights schools is up and charter school numbers are down. As of early September, 208 children who are residents of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District (CH-UH) had signed up for a charter school, and 33 more were likely. The numbers have declined each year from a high of 431 in 2014–15.

Charter schools use public dollars but lack public accountability. School districts are charged $6,010 for each student who lives in their community who attends a charter school, but they have no control over how those funds are used. Public schools lose money and students, which diminishes efficiency and undercuts quality. Our district’s five-year forecast projects that charter students will cost the Heights schools $2.6 million this year. This is down from a $3.37 million price tag five years ago.

The real drain on the system, however, are the voucher programs, and those numbers keep climbing.

Ohio has three kinds of vouchers that force local school districts to pay for students who are using private education. Under the Autism and Jon Peterson Special Needs scholarship programs, up to $27,000 is available to any student with a special education diagnosis. The large price tag makes this a serious drain on school funds in every district. The number of users in our district doesn’t change much from year to year. The projected cost for CH-UH for this school year is $2.8 million, up from $2.65 million last year. This year about 210 students will use special education vouchers.

Another option is the EdChoice voucher program. EdChoice vouchers are valued at $4,650 for grades K–8 and $6,000 for high school. Most schools that accept these vouchers are religious. 

Access to EdChoice vouchers is tied to Ohio’s deeply flawed education accountability system. If the aggregate test score data for an individual public school falls short, the school is defined as an EdChoice school. Anyone residing in the attendance area of that school who could have attended that school is eligible for an EdChoice voucher. Sadly, research is clear that standardized tests do not adequately measure the quality of education in a school. Ohio knowingly ignores this information and uses tests to punish public schools.

Nearly every district that has EdChoice designation serves many high-need students. In this irrational system, the neediest students lose the most money to privatization.

Lawmakers justify this program as a way to help families escape failing schools, but do not require recipients to be public school students. Most voucher users have never stepped into a public school. Most were already headed to a religious school and are rewarded with public funds to do so.

CH-UH was designated as an EdChoice district in 2012, and 32 students received vouchers that year. Once a student receives a voucher it can be renewed until the student graduates, even if the public school improves. Voucher use has grown exponentially as more schools were designated EdChoice and as recipients renew their vouchers. This year, 176 kindergarten students received first-time vouchers, adding to the total of more than 650 recipients. The expected loss to the CH-UH district this year from EdChoice is $3.7 million, up from $3.24 million last year.

The district’s five-year forecast indicates privatization costs for charters and vouchers will be $9.1 million for the 2018–19 school year. Where will it end?

As Ohio’s policymakers revise the state report card, they should end the practice of using test scores to trigger access to vouchers. I hope they will also reclaim their primary obligation as stewards of public funds and more fully support a thorough and efficient system of public schools. A first step is to end the transfer of public funds to private education.

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 11, Issue 10, Posted 2:45 PM, 09.27.2018