State lawmakers created a problem for us

I became an activist in the era when bumper stickers were equivalent to a tweet. My car was a traveling billboard. The yard sign, another kind of short-form communication, still works for me. Forget social media. At election time I still clutter up my yard with these temporary message boards.

My basement is an archive of school-levy yard signs. I’ve lived in Cleveland Heights for more than 40 years, and levy campaigns are necessary every four to five. I’ve got a half a dozen signs to prove it.

I will be sporting a new sign by the time this column hits the streets, because public school students in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District need us to vote yes to fill the crater that vouchers have created in the district’s operating budget.

The state legislature created three voucher programs that use the deduction method to pay for private school tuition. This means the local school district must foot part of the voucher bill. The legislature never asked local communities if they agreed to spend their funds on children they don’t educate. According to CH-UH Treasurer Scott Gainer, only 90 of the 1,664 students who live in our district and use vouchers to attend a nonpublic school ever attended one of our schools. Vouchers don’t save money; they increase costs.

Voucher costs for this school year in the CH-UH district will exceed $10.5 million. They are an uninvited expense that increases the per-pupil cost of operating the district, even though public-school students never see those funds.

Because of the deduction funding method, voucher payments deplete school-district resources and divert them from public-school students. The payments increase inequality in funding across districts and increase reliance on property taxes. 

Last year the [district's] total voucher bill was $7.3 million, and the state contributed about $3 million in per-pupil aid. This year the total cost jumped to more than $10 million, but, because state funding is frozen, the state contribution will stay at $3 million. Public-school students, who would have otherwise benefited from those funds, are shortchanged. You can’t just tighten your belt to get around a loss of more than $7 million. 

Opposition to school levies typically makes the case for mismanagement and waste and being too generous with teachers. It’s standard fare to try to show that the stewards of our precious public resources have somehow failed to be adequately vigilant. That argument does not hold water. This budget hole, created by a reckless legislature that disregards its responsibility to public education, is not the fault of an irresponsible school district. It is the fault of an irresponsible legislature.

Vouchers weaken an already broken state funding system. Instead of increasing the state’s investment in school district budgets and reducing reliance on property taxes, as has been required by the Ohio Supreme Court, the legislature chose to defy this ruling and invest in private education.

I am grateful that our state legislators, Janine Boyd and Sandra Williams, have paid attention to this destructive policy and advocated for legislative fixes that would bring relief.

The legislature imposed its values on local communities and, in so doing, betrayed the local community partners with whom it shares responsibility for funding a high-quality system of schools. We need to hold our noses and vote yes, and then demand that state leaders stop robbing public schools. If we can’t stanch the bleeding of local budgets caused by vouchers, it will be too expensive to ever provide a state funding system that is both adequate and equitable. 

Voters have a right to be critical. This time it’s state policy that needs to be the target, not public-school students

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 13, Issue 2, Posted 11:46 AM, 02.01.2020