Voucher costs deepen inequality

I used some of my time during the stay-at-home order to take a deep dive into data about which school districts lose funds to EdChoice vouchers—a state program that requires certain school districts to pay for private-school vouchers out of the district’s state-aid allotment. My hours buried in the Ohio Department of Education website confirmed in breathtaking terms my suspicions about the unfair impact of this misuse of public funds.

The EdChoice voucher program is expensive, affects some districts a lot more than others, and fuels inequality in education funding and opportunities. Most of the children enrolled in the districts hardest hit by vouchers live in poverty and are racial minorities. How much longer can policymakers ignore that their diversion of public-school funding to support private education discriminates against our neediest students?

The CH-UH district is among the hardest hit by this threat to educational opportunity. It is among the 22 of Ohio’s 612 school districts that together carried 90 percent of all of this year’s EdChoice vouchers. Because of the lost funds, the district has already cut more than $2.5 million from next year’s budget. Deeper cuts are expected.

If public school funding perpetuates inequality, public education cannot provide equal opportunity and cannot help this generation of young people overcome the nation’s wealth divide. EdChoice vouchers feed inequality by reducing funding for public education and increasing reliance on property taxes.

EdChoice funding uses money appropriated for public school students to pay private-school tuition. Public school students get what’s left after the voucher bills are paid. The higher the number of vouchers awarded in a community, the greater the funding loss for its public school students. The tragedy is that the districts with the greatest EdChoice costs also serve the most vulnerable students.

The students who need more educational resources are most likely to receive less. Their education opportunities are diminished in order to fund the legislature’s commitment to fund private education with public-education dollars. 

Of Ohio’s four voucher programs, EdChoice is the one that uses test scores to define voucher access. Research and experience confirm that family income influences standardized test results more than school factors. By using test results to trigger voucher access, the legislature created a system that discriminates against poor children and the schools that serve them.

In 2018, there were 40 districts with EdChoice-designated schools. In 2019, the number increased to 140. After voucher zealots tinkered with the criteria behind closed doors, the number of districts for 2020–21 was about to explode to more than 400. Some legislators pushed back, but didn’t fix the problem. In the middle of the pandemic-induced financial meltdown, they agreed to allow new vouchers only in the 140 existing EdChoice districts—a designation virtually impossible to escape once a district is trapped within.

To understand who will carry the load from this decision, I focused on the 40 districts that have been under EdChoice for at least three years, because they have already given up funds for multiple years. They account for 6 percent of Ohio’s school districts. This small group of districts carried 94 percent of the voucher load this school year, and 22 of the hardest-hit districts (including CH-UH) within this group carried 90 percent of the load.

The longtime EdChoice districts transferred more than $138 million from their allotments of state aid to fund more than 27,000 vouchers. The other 100 EdChoice districts paid for 2,000 vouchers, while the other 472 districts didn’t lose a dime. Next year’s new EdChoice vouchers are likely to be concentrated in the communities where there is a demonstrated local demand for vouchers, districts that are already losing their shirts.

What makes this even more tragic is that the majority of public-school students in the hardest-hit districts live in poverty. That’s what put them in this trap in the first place. A second devastating reality is that the majority of students enrolled in 29 of these districts are not white. Our poorest and most racially diverse communities are the most vulnerable to this assault on educational opportunity.

The disparate effect of EdChoice vouchers on education opportunity is a form of structural inequality that the state legislature refuses to end. How do we compel it to make strong public schools a priority?   

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 6, Posted 11:00 AM, 06.02.2020