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BY:  Ohio Capital Journal

While marijuana legislation and other bills still sit on the horizon in the second year of this term’s General Assembly, education policy can always be counted on to be a part of the discussion. 2024 should be no different.

Ohio’s private school voucher program has been a source of strong debate among legislators and education advocates of all kinds since the 1990s, when the program began as a way to allow lower-income students to access private schools, proposed as an effort to improve education outcomes in poor-performing public school districts.

But as public school advocates still hope to see full funding of the Fair School Funding Plan for districts across the state, they saw eye-popping increases in private school funding through vouchers that worry them almost as much as the foot-dragging that they believe has occurred when talking of public school funding.

“You should be funding the public schools,” said Stephen Dyer, former state representative and former chair of the Ohio House Primary and Secondary Education subcommittee for the House Finance Committee. “If you want to fund the private schools, fund the private schools, but there’s no reason you can’t do both.”

Private school voucher expansion by the numbers

The Ohio Department of Education reported 23,272 participants in the voucher expansion for the 2023 fiscal year, up from the 20,702 reported in 2022 and even more from the year prior, when 17,155 students participated in the state-subsidized program.

In 2021, 85% of the voucher expansion participants were below 200% of the federal poverty line, and 93% of 2022 participants were below 250% of the poverty line.

In 2023, language on the ODE data changed to “low-income qualified” to “not low-income qualified,” removing the breakdown of federal poverty percentages. In this year’s report, 67% of participants were “low-income qualified” and 32% were “not low-income qualified.”

With the most recent state budget, passed this summer, a GOP-led effort to expand eligibility for private school vouchers led to a ballooning of the poverty level allowed for the voucher program to 450% of the poverty line, or a household income of $135,000 or less for a family of four.

Those receiving a scholarship can move to a private school with $6,165 in state funding for K-8 students, and $8,407 for high schoolers.

Families with incomes above the $135,000 threshold can still be eligible for at least 10% of the maximum scholarship, even with a higher income, Senate President Matt Huffman’s office said when the budget was passed.

Public school advocates took issue with the expansion, saying the Fair School Funding Plan, seeking to support public school districts based on their individual needs, should be the focus, considering the vast majority of students in Ohio attend traditional public schools.

‘A perversion of the idea behind a voucher’

Since the most recent voucher participation numbers were released, Dyer did his own analysis of the voucher program, finding “a very different goal” compared to when it began.

“It’s now going to wealthier, white families to subsidize the decisions they’d already made to send their kids to private schools,” Dyer told the OCJ.

In an analysis he posted to his blog, Dyer said ODE data showed nearly nine in 10 new applications to the voucher expansion went to white students, and more new vouchers for high schoolers went to families making more than $150,000 annually than went to families making less.

Dyer also makes an argument that has been made before by those opposing the voucher expansion: increasing private school voucher program causes “resegregation” in the public schools, with the number of white students who are leaving for private schools, vouchers in hand.

“It’s frankly a perversion of the idea behind a voucher, which was sold as allowing poor students, students of color, students who haven’t traditionally had access to private schools, to have access,” Dyer said in an OCJ interview.

The most recent data on Ohio’s EdChoice voucher expansion showed 66.4% of participants are white, with the Black population of voucher recipients coming in at 15%, the second highest number reported.

In 2022, 65.9% of expansion vouchers went to white students, up from 64.1% in 2021.

A vast majority – 9 in 10 – vouchers come from just 31 school districts, according to Dyer.

“Those districts’ racial makeup is, on average, 21% white,” he writes in his analysis. “Yet 46% of EdChoice voucher recipients are white – more than double the percentage of white students than attend the 31 public school districts where nine in 10 voucher students would otherwise attend.”

At the very least as the voucher program continues in Ohio, Dyer hopes a plan to audit the program is forthcoming for the billions of dollars spent to subsidize it. He pointed to an audit of the defunct Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which exposed false enrollment numbers and led to court battles to claw back more than $60 million in state funding from the online charter school.

“It’s all of our dollars, so we have a right to say what happens with all of our dollars, and we certainly have a right to audit where our dollars are going,” Dyer said.

The lawsuit

With a Republican supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, support of private school vouchers and “school choice” seems assured at least for the foreseeable future, so public school advocates are looking to other avenues to make change.

Another court battle is still simmering in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, a lawsuit that seeks to tamp down on the voucher program in favor of the constitutional obligations the legislature has to properly fund public schools.

The lawsuit was filed in Jan. 2022, accusing the state of Ohio of improperly and unequally funding private schools, specifically targeting the growth of the voucher program as a drain on public school resources.

“The legislature has only moved to further expand private school vouchers in Ohio,” the leading group in the lawsuit, Vouchers Hurt Ohio, wrote in a recent statement on the program. “We do not stand a chance of changing their minds or direction so we are forced to sue to get a fair hearing in a court of law where the Ohio Constitution is respected and means something.”

Amidst the nearly two years the case has been ongoing, time extensions have been granted and Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman has asked to be excused from a deposition due to “legislative privilege,” also arguing the testimony sought from Huffman “is neither legally relevant nor necessary.”

Franklin County Judge Jaiza Page has not ruled on Huffman’s subpoena, but allowed subpoenas for 42 “non-party private schools” in Ohio as part of the case, selected, according to the lawsuit filers “as a representative sample based on their location, demographics, percent of EdChoice students enrolled and total EdChoice funds received.”

Parties standing against the public school advocates in the case said the passage of the state budget, including an increase in funding for the Fair School Funding Plan along with the voucher expansion should allow for the dismissal of their complaints on funding of public schools.

“And while plaintiffs presumably still take issue with the new, amendment program, that does not change the fact that their current complaint challenges legislation that ‘is no longer the operative legislation governing EdChoice,” attorneys arguing for dismissal stated.

A deadline for documents and evidence in the case was Nov. 30, and the court has requested “expert reports” from both sides by Feb. 23 of next year, with a trial date set for Nov. 4, 2024.

Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.


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