EdChoice vouchers institutionalize discrimination

John Lewis, the heroic advocate of nonviolence, beseeched us: “When you see something that is not right, you must say something.”

If you read this column regularly, you know I have not been silent about EdChoice vouchers, a state program that requires public school districts to pay for private-school vouchers out of the school district’s state funding. They are particularly damaging to the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, which transfers more than 30 percent of its state aid to vouchers, the highest proportion in the state. It is this huge expense that led the school board to cut the district budget by $2 million this year and next, and to put a levy on the ballot in November.

During my stay at home, I documented how other school districts are affected by this program, which, rather than investing in public-school students, uses test scores to rate school quality, makes vouchers available to families served by a school that is rated as failing, and requires the so-called failing district to pay for the vouchers.

A close look at who is harmed most by the loss of public education funds to vouchers shows that EdChoice discriminates by income and race. Public officials built a project to advance private education on the backs of poor and minority children. If we are serious about dismantling the effects of institutional racism, we must end EdChoice.

Through the 2018–19 school year, only 40, or 6 percent, of Ohio’s 612 school districts had any schools eligible for EdChoice. For 2019–20, EdChoice expanded into 100 more districts, but 94 percent of all vouchers awarded that year were in the 40 previously included districts. Twenty-two districts have voucher expenses above $500,000; in CH-UH, the cost is more than $7 million.

When I looked at who attends school in the hardest-hit districts, I discovered that most students in 39 of the 40 districts live in poverty, and, in 29, most are racial minorities. The 22 districts that each funded 100 or more EdChoice vouchers account for 90 percent of EdChoice vouchers statewide. All 22 districts have student poverty rates in excess of 54 percent and, in 16, more than 80 percent of students live in poverty. Non-white students are the majority in 20 of those districts, and account for 87 percent of all the students enrolled in these city and first-ring districts. Given the outsized power of rural legislators in a gerrymandered legislature, it’s no wonder it’s nearly impossible to solve this injustice.

Poor children are carrying the burden because the state uses test scores to define quality. Standardized tests, while convenient, are a more reliable measure of the income, parental education and neighborhood characteristics of test-takers than of what happens in school. By using test scores for this high-stakes decision, the legislators created a system that discriminates against poor children.

It is not surprising that most students in these districts are minorities. Income inequality is an enduring effect of institutional racism. As Nikole Hannah-Jones reported recently in The New York Times, the median income of African-American households is about half that of white households. Housing segregation by race and income plays into the lack of diversity in the districts most affected by vouchers. Local taxpayers foot the bill for the legislature’s addiction to funding private education at the expense of public schools.

The loss of funds to EdChoice leaves local officials with the unseemly choice of reducing educational opportunities or raising property taxes. Both exacerbate education inequality among public schools in Ohio. It is time to dismantle this source of institutionalized inequality and the injustice it perpetuates.

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 9, Posted 3:46 PM, 08.31.2020