Vouchers during a pandemic

I am a slow learner. As both an optimist and defender of public education, I don’t want to give up the fight to ameliorate the destructive impact of voucher costs on public schools.

I keep thinking that if we just make more calls, share more facts, mobilize more people and explain the problem, lawmakers will do the right thing. Surely, they don’t want to foster disparity in educational opportunities or run our public schools into the ground.

The pandemic adds new urgency to this issue. We don’t know the extent of human and financial suffering that lies ahead, but we do know unemployment will continue to skyrocket, household income will fall, local and state tax revenue will decline, and new demands will be put on public resources. We will need our public institutions more than ever, but funding for them is sure to shrink—a lot.

This puts our schools in jeopardy, at a moment when we need them as a resource for equal opportunity, economic strength and an educated citizenry. They are an essential engine of prosperity and a key factor in the economic recovery that lies ahead.

My hopes for voucher relief were raised this winter as an explosion in the number of school districts eligible for vouchers triggered widespread outrage. The unreasonable growth highlighted the flaws of Ohio’s voucher program, which relies on highly biased tests and a convoluted and inaccurate report card to determine where vouchers are available. It laid bare the damage to  school-district budgets caused by the deduction method of funding vouchers, which requires districts to divert their state aid to cover voucher costs.

There was public debate and bi-partisan criticism. Republicans control both the state house and senate, and each body passed different solutions. The house rejected high-stakes testing and advocated the end of the EdChoice Scholarship Program. The senate demanded it stay in place.

Progress fizzled when the pandemic hit.

When Gov. DeWine, a staunch defender of testing, vouchers and deduction funding, pulled the legislature together in March to address education and other issues linked to his stay-at-home order, the legislature chose a short-sighted solution to the unresolved voucher crisis. Just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, it did.

It let voucher costs grow next year in 140 school districts, the same districts designated as eligible for EdChoice this school year. This includes 37 districts that have had EdChoice since before 2017, most of which have already lost substantial funds to vouchers. All are high poverty—between 56 and 100 percent—and, in 17 of these districts, more than 70 percent of the students are minorities.

This policy again takes funds from the districts that are chronically underfunded and serve students with the greatest needs. It will fuel greater disparities in educational opportunity and lead to greater reliance on property taxes. These are underlying causes of the health disparity that has become so evident during this pandemic.

Voucher costs are already destroying school finances for the CH-UH City School District; we will soon suffer even more. The district receives about $21 million in aid from the state. In 2019, about half of that aid went to deductions for vouchers, charter schools, transfers to other districts, and transportation to nonpublic schools.

This year, EdChoice voucher costs increased by $2.5 million; next year at least another $1 million will be lost. These rising costs will leave public-school students with less than one-third of the state aid that was appropriated for their use, making us one of the hardest-hit districts in Ohio.

It is with deep sadness and great fear that I have to face the facts. Neither DeWine nor the divided legislature will lift a finger to protect public schools. Going forward, Ohio families will face serious financial challenges, and state government will be strained to alleviate problems that have become more severe. The legislature missed an easy way to plan for the worst, and now tragedy is on the horizon.

It’s time to elect new lawmakers.

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 5, Posted 11:37 AM, 04.30.2020