Activists weigh in with court

Matt Huffman, majority leader of the Ohio Senate, is the architect and champion of privatizing education in Ohio. In an Aug. 15 New Yorker article about gerrymandering, he is quoted as saying that gerrymandering means “We can kind of do what we want.” And they have. Under his leadership, investment in public education has lagged, while spending on private-school vouchers has exploded.

Stymied by the legislature’s lack of concern for public education—the system that serves 90 percent of Ohio children—a coalition of school districts turned to the state courts to protect public education, a state obligation set out in the state constitution.

On Jan. 4, more than 100 school districts filed suit against the state of Ohio, challenging the constitutionality of using public funds for private education. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District is a lead plaintiff.

On May 18, the state filed a motion to dismiss. In response, 20 organizations, including the Heights Coalition for Public Education, submitted six different amicus briefs to the Franklin County Common Pleas Court in support of the plaintiffs.

The hope is that the outpouring of interest will demonstrate that the case is of such significance that it should go forward.

The coalition’s brief was written by a volunteer lawyer and former public-school teacher, Ken Kowalski.

Two other grassroots organizations, Public Education Partners and Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education, added their names to the submission.

The coalition got started in 2014 after more than 160 people joined in a community reading project that explored the war on public education. Participants were moved by their new understanding of what was at stake and decided to raise public awareness of the issues and mobilize the public to advocate for public education.

Coalition members have been visible and vociferous at legislative hearings on voucher policy and state funding. More than 1,370 people have signed the coalition’s position statement, which, among other things, rejects vouchers.

Ari Klein and I serve as the convenors of the coalition, and a small steering committee designs its programs and activities.

The coalition’s brief urges the court to bring the case to trial: “[The] case should not be short-circuited.” It asserts that Ohio’s voucher program unconstitutionally provides preferential treatment to private schools, because it spends more per pupil on vouchers than on public-school students in most districts, including ours.

The “Vouchers Hurt Ohio” litigation claims that Ohio now operates two systems of education—one private and one public—at state expense and without adequately funding the public system. This has exacerbated segregation and promoted discrimination. The goal is to end Ohio’s damaging investment of public funds in EdChoice vouchers for private education.

The fact that we were able to participate in this important legal challenge is something of a miracle. The Heights Coalition for Public Education is an all-volunteer effort with no budget, staff, or office. Our strength comes from our commitment to public education and the common good, our tenacity, and our willingness to show up and speak up.

The grassroots nature of our organization makes us a citizens’ voice for fairness—a voice that is often unable to participate because of resource constraints, or which is drowned out by special interests like Ohio’s Center for Christian Virtue and the Koch brothers-funded Institute for Justice. Both of those organizations actively lobby for privatized education in Ohio and against the litigation.

We have not given up, and we won’t go away. For citizen activism to be effective, that is a requirement. If it survives this first hurdle, the lawsuit is expected to take a couple of years.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 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. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.

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Volume 15, Issue 9, Posted 11:42 AM, 08.31.2022