A reset for EdChoice vouchers

In September the Ohio Department of Education issued the annual “report cards” that are supposed to inform the public about the relative success of each public school district. Private schools, though they receive public funds, are not graded.

Thanks to our teachers and students, our district had plenty of good news. One significant change is that no Cleveland Heights-University Heights school carries the unfair designation of “failing,” the status that triggers access to performance-based EdChoice vouchers.

This change of status means the state will not award any new performance-based EdChoice vouchers in our school district this year. The 1,743 local students already benefiting can renew their subsidies through 12th grade, regardless of the district’s current label, and as long as they live in Ohio.

Ohio has two EdChoice programs. The first was approved in 2005 as a way to rescue kids from failing schools. In 2014 [the state] approved EdChoice Expansion, this time to aid low-income students.

The bad news is that income-based vouchers are no longer about helping low-income people, and their use and cost are growing exponentially. While access to performance-based vouchers is shrinking, access to income-based subsidies is growing. Not only is the scholarship amount greater than what public school students receive, the full amount—$8,400—is now available to any household with income below 450 percent of the federal poverty level, or $135,000 for a family of four.

EdChoice vouchers have drained more than $21 million of local taxpayer money out of our school district since the first 73 vouchers were awarded in the 2015–16 school year. Last year 1,924 students, most of whom had never attended a public school, received vouchers. This profligate spending makes private education at public expense an entitlement. It is a radical departure from our traditions of private education as a private responsibility and a firm separation of church and state. Taxpayers are now funding two K–12 education systems—one public and one private. It is neither justifiable nor sustainable.

I tend to ignore the report cards. The quality of education is way too complex to reduce to five stars based primarily on standardized test results, and standardized tests are not adequate for making the high-stakes judgments that are tied to report card data.

The folly of using test scores to judge quality was evident in 2021, when 1,227 schools in 426 districts earned a failing designation. This dismal record prompted lawmakers to change their evaluation system, limiting this status to school districts where 20 percent or more of students qualified for Title 1 services and that had two consecutive years of low test results. This year, 412 schools in 57 districts carry this failing label.

The free-spending legislature is also the body that is stingy about funding basic needs. Only the poorest households, such as families of four with incomes below $39,000, are eligible for SNAP and free school lunches. Child-care subsidies are limited to those with incomes below $43,500, and health-care funds for children are limited to families with incomes below $62,000.

In 2023 about 169,807 Ohio students attended a private school, and, so far this year, more than 81,800 households have applied for income-based vouchers. Another 41,700 have applied for the performance-based EdChoice subsidy. It won’t be long before every private school student will be educated at taxpayer expense, without public oversight.

The new state budget set aside more than $1.05 billion for private school vouchers for next year. What if that is not enough? The challenge to voters is to make sure advancing the common good—in this case, public education—is the priority for spending public funds.

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 16, Issue 11, Posted 11:14 AM, 10.30.2023