State legislature again defeats school-funding equity

It is hard to imagine that any school community has fought with more fervor to end EdChoice than Cleveland Heights and University Heights. EdChoice is the state program that transfers state aid from local school districts to pay for private-school vouchers, a scheme known as “deduction funding.”

The Heights Coalition for Public Education has put the state’s war on public education on the local agenda and fostered understanding of the damaging effects of state policy on local communities—especially ours.

Forums, book discussions and research documenting the impact of this theft of public funds have helped people understand the issues and fight for remedies. Legislative resistance pushed our board of education to join a legal challenge to EdChoice.

In 2020 the Ohio Legislature finally put forth SB 376, the Fair School Funding Plan, which would have ended deduction funding. We were there to support this remedy.

In March, school board members, Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby, and carloads of parents, students and community members made the pilgrimage to Columbus to support the end of EdChoice. Multiple voices pleaded for an end to a policy that increases funding inequality and shifts the school-funding burden to local taxpayers.

After a pandemic shutdown, the legislature reconvened in December, and Sen. Matt Huffman (R-Lima) rammed through his preferred plan, which retains deduction funding and penalizes high-poverty school districts like ours.

The community mobilized again during the levy campaign to support Sub. HB 305. Kirby showed up to testify, while community members submitted testimony and joined a postcard campaign. The bill had strong bi-partisan support in both houses, and enough votes to pass. It flew through the House on a vote of 88-7 but died when Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls) refused to take up the proposal.

We lost these legislative battles, but not because of silence. There is not a legislator in Columbus who doesn’t know that vouchers are a disaster for public school students in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district. This was not widely understood five years ago, and our efforts through these years to increase the pressure have helped keep this issue alive; but can we still win? 

I have examined the data on who is most affected by the loss of public resources to EdChoice. Ninety percent of EdChoice vouchers are awarded in just 22 school districts, eight of which are in first-ring suburbs, and six of which are in Cuyahoga County. The other big losers are 14 urban districts. The majority of students enrolled in these districts are poor and children of color, and are represented by Democrats.

EdChoice is undermining education funding for the most vulnerable students. The students are defenseless because the majority of elected officials who represent them, with the notable exception of Huffman, are in the minority, too. Democrats wield little power, because Republicans hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate. Ohio students are at the mercy of policymakers who are more loyal to low state taxes and religious education than to them.

We know institutional racism is alive and well in policymaking circles. If there were a serious concern for equity and truly guaranteeing every student access to high quality education, EdChoice would be called what it is, and it would be thrown out in a second.

Unless it can ride the tide of a new fair-funding plan, a legislative remedy seems impossible. That leaves us three other bigger projects: a court case, an end to gerrymandering, and a large-scale revival of commitment to public education as a fundamental cornerstone of democracy. In my view, we need to work on all three.

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 14, Issue 2, Posted 11:07 AM, 01.29.2021