Can litigation save the common good?
Lawsuits take time and money. They can feel like a longshot, and sometimes a clear solution can be elusive. A moral victory does not always change things.
But the political process is also time-consuming, costly and unreliable. State lawmakers openly flout the Ohio Constitution. When an issue like the proper use of state funds is consequential, the legal route is worth the effort.
On Jan. 4, more than 25 years after the state created its first program using public funds to pay private-school tuition, a coalition of 100 school districts filed suit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, challenging the constitutionality of Ohio’s EdChoice program. The legislature made vouchers widely available in 2005 when it created EdChoice, one of Ohio's five voucher programs.
The litigation questions the legality of the state funding two separate education systems when the constitution requires the state to “secure a thorough and efficient system” of common schools—i.e., public schools.
The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District (CH-UH) was the first in the state to join the lawsuit and is one of five lead plaintiffs, the others being Richmond Heights, Columbus, Barberton and Lima.
Dan Heintz, a CH-UH school board member, serves on the steering committee for what is known as the Vouchers Hurt Ohio Coalition, which worked with the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding to bring the suit. It took the group of about 10 school-district leaders from across the state two years to recruit 100 districts, find suitable representation, formulate the charges and arguments, and finally launch the case.
The lawsuit is the outcome of a demanding process that transformed the injustice felt by local school district leaders into a strong legal case that could change the course of education funding in Ohio. According to Heintz, "The legislature left us no choice." I agree.
The loss of state education funding to vouchers has hurt our community. I have watched with horror as the program has grown from the 79 EdChoice vouchers awarded in 2015–16 to more than 1,800 six years later. While vouchers are presented as a way to save students from failing schools, 95 percent of voucher recipients have never set foot in a public school.
The total cost of EdChoice vouchers in our district grew from about $300,000 at the start to more than $9 million last year, with a significant share of those funds coming directly out of state aid for public schools. The statewide cost for the voucher programs in 2020 exceeded $390 million.
Over the last five years school leaders and community members have fought hard to rein in state spending on private education. We were visible in the statehouse sharing our story as lawmakers insisted on expanding choice. It made an impression, but it did not stop legislators from increasing access to vouchers and increasing the amount the state offers to those who use them.
We need a lasting solution. If successful, the court will order the state's education department to stop writing tuition checks to private schools.
Vouchers hurt Ohio. They not only drain essential resources from our public system, which serves 90 percent of Ohio’s children, they undermine a much larger concept: Public education means we share responsibility for all children. Private education abandons this commitment, in favor of each family for itself.
If the plaintiffs prevail, the case will affirm our interconnection. It would be a profound and democratic outcome.
I appreciate the school district leaders who decided to stand up to the legislature on behalf of public education and the common good.
For more information, including the text of the lawsuit, visit https://vouchershurtohio.com.
Susie Kaeser has been a proud Cleveland Heights resident siince 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.