Time to fix the voucher problem

In his 2003 book, Seeking Common Ground, Public Schools in a Diverse Society, education historian David Tyack observed that "government requires environmental impact statements for construction projects, but not student and teacher impact reports for educational reforms.” If only Ohio’s policymakers had done an impact study of their voucher laws.

Vouchers are eroding, rather than improving, education available to children of color and those who are enrolled in high-poverty school districts in Ohio. The use of public funds to pay for private schools is made worse by the payment method. Funds for three voucher programs are deducted from state aid to local school districts, often taking funds away from public school students.

EdChoice vouchers are triggered primarily by low test scores. Last year they were available in 39 districts in Ohio, and seven in our county. This year 138 districts are affected, including 10 in Cuyahoga County. Two special-education voucher programs are available in all districts and are also funded by the deduction method.

The legislature sets the value of each kind of voucher. EdChoice costs $4,650 per elementary school student and $6,000 per high school student. Autism grants are worth $27,000 per student, and grants through the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program range from $7,500 to $27,000, depending on the diagnosis. Voucher payments are deducted from the state aid that is allocated to the school district where each voucher recipient lives. Voucher students are guaranteed that amount, and public school students get what is left.

This year, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights public schools will transfer $9.9 million in state aid to private schools for 1,473 voucher students. They constitute 21 percent of the students who must share in the state aid, but take 46 percent of the available funds. Five years ago, vouchers used only 7 percent of the funds. The growth rate is unsustainable! 

Vouchers are particularly harmful to public schools that serve poor children, where the need for adequate funding and the likelihood of low test scores is the highest. Vouchers also increase funding inequality among districts and can increase reliance on local property taxes or prompt cuts in educational programs. Neither option is good for children nor the communities that public schools serve. CH-UH is one of the hardest hit districts in the state and this year the situation has gone too far. It’s time to examine the impact and repair the damage.

I looked at last year’s data for the seven EdChoice districts in Cuyahoga County. Three variables conspire to make the Heights situation unusual among our neighbors. Ours is a high-poverty district, receives less state aid than is required to fund vouchers of any amount, and has many families for whom religious education is an obligation. This translates into the largest number of EdChoice and special education vouchers of any local district.

An impact analysis might have shown some critical flaws in the voucher programs that have led to their lopsided and untenable impact. Lawmakers did not address how to fairly distribute both the opportunity and burden of vouchers across the state. Second, they did not consider how the deduction method of funding would affect adequacy or equity, core objectives for fair state funding. Third, they ignored that their policy would discriminate against children in high-poverty districts. I wonder why they thought taking resources away from poor children would improve their schools.

Vouchers are part of the market approach to change. Competition is supposed to drive improvement. Experience shows that vouchers don’t cause consumers to shop around for the best education value. Rather, they help people who care deeply about educating their children in a religious environment and effectively diminish the capacity of public schools to serve the common good. 

The experiment is over. It’s time to face the consequences and mitigate the impact.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a 40-year resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She is active in the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.

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Volume 12, Issue 9, Posted 12:41 PM, 09.02.2019