I don't want to be first
Being number one is typically a coveted status, but not when it comes to ranking school districts by their unfunded voucher costs.
The Cleveland Heights–University Heights City School District has the heartbreaking distinction of subsidizing vouchers at the largest dollar amount per student of any district in the state. Being number one is undercutting educational opportunities for public school students and putting pressure on our community to solve a school-funding crisis not of our making.
In fiscal year 2019, the 5,111 public school students in the CH-UH district lost $851 apiece so 1,300 other students could attend private schools. The total voucher bill was $7.36 million, and public-school kids paid $4.35 million of it. Cincinnati is second in total funds lost. Its unfunded cost was more than $16 million, but it’s a bigger district and receives a lot more state funding for each student. The 34,000 public school students in Cincinnati each lost $351 to unfunded voucher costs.
These districts are among 18 districts that used more than 10 percent of their state aid to pay unfunded voucher costs. Six are high-poverty districts. These students can least afford to forfeit their state funds to help someone else attend a private school.
The numbers for this school year are even worse. The state budget froze school funding levels for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 at the 2019 level but did not freeze voucher growth. Public school enrollment is up in the Heights, and so is voucher use. The state awarded 600 more vouchers to Heights residents this year, 25 of which went to students who formerly attended our public schools. The budget hole is getting deeper, and it becomes increasingly harder to climb out.
The state legislature created this problem and now needs to fix it. When legislators permitted the use of public funds for private education (mostly in religious schools), they set the value of each voucher, but didn’t appropriate the funds to fully pay for them or create a system to distribute them fairly across the state. Instead, they made local school districts cover part of the cost and put no limit on how many vouchers a district needed to fund.
Vouchers do not reduce school district costs. They just spread the same resources over more people.
The state counts voucher students as enrolled in the districts where they live, so the students generate the same amount of per-pupil state funding as their public-school peers, but this amount is rarely adequate to fully fund a voucher. The unfunded part is taken from revenue allocated to public school students.
Private schools receive their full voucher payment, and public-school kids get what is left. The state contribution to public education shrinks. While a brilliant way to disguise true voucher costs and give away more of them, it is a cruel assault on public-school students and on the communities that the schools serve.
The legislature has forsaken its constitutional responsibility to provide for a thorough and efficient system of common schools, in favor of private education that is neither accountable to voters nor held to the same standards as the public system. This is made worse by requiring local school districts to fund what the state doesn’t.
It is time for our lawmakers to rectify the untenable situation they created. They should send additional funds to districts like ours. They should freeze the number of vouchers at the 2019 level until the state funding crisis is fixed, and, if they are unwilling to discontinue vouchers, they need to directly fund them and not implicate local school districts in their retreat from the common good.
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.