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Janresseger: Ohio Has a New Universal Voucher Program, and the Problems Are Already Starting

As we watch the emergence of Ohio’s new universal school voucher program, passed in June as part of the state’s new biennial budget, problems have already become apparent.

Voucher Program Is Already Exceeding Cost Estimates

It is already clear that Ohio’s new universal school voucher program is going to cost more than anybody predicted.  The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver provided an update on the financial impact as of mid-September: “With more than a month left for parents to enroll, Ohio’s new universal school voucher program appears to already be more expensive than estimated…. (T)he state has received applications totaling approximately $432 million for the 2023-2024 school year. That’s $34 million more than the Legislative Service Commission forecasted. And interest in EdChoice Expansion scholarships isn’t slowing. The Ohio Department of Education says it receives between 900 and 1,000 applications daily… When Ohio’s two-year budget was drafted, LSC (the Legislative Service Commission) estimated that EdChoice Expansion… would cost $397.8 million for fiscal year 2024 and $439.1 million in FY 2025. The state awarded 24,320 EdChoice Expansion vouchers for the 2022-2023 school year. This year, ODE (the Ohio Department of Education)… received 70,487 applications as of Sept. 6.”

How many of Ohio’s new school voucher applicants are seeking a voucher to leave a public school for a private school, and how many are simply applying for a voucher to offset private school tuition families are already paying? For Education WeekMark Lieberman explores one of the reasons for the rapid and unplanned diversion of state revenue to school voucher programs.  Lieberman describes the findings of  Michigan State University voucher researcher Josh Cowen, who confirms that, “state lawmakers often assume that the costs of paying for private school tuition will be offset by the reduction in per-pupil costs caused by a drop in public K-12 enrollment. However, if the state is instead taking on new students for whom it is financially responsible—students who were previously attending private school without state assistance—that’s a new cost that could strain budgets, he said.”

Staver reports that Ohio has not even been collecting data about whether or not voucher applicants are seeking to exit public schools or are already enrolled in private schools: “Ohio isn’t tracking how many new voucher applicants already attend private schools… That means it will be difficult to discern whether the spike in EdChoice scholarships came from parents looking to leave public school or those whose children already attend (private schools).”  One serious problem here is that the voucher expansion is to be paid for out of the school foundation budget that also pays for the state’s public schools.

Education Week‘s Lieberman recently examined data from several other states that do track whether the students taking vouchers are exiting public schools: “In Iowa, 40 percent of more than 17,000 applicants to the state’s new universal education savings account program have left public schools, while the remaining 60 percent were not enrolled in public schools before applying…. The gap is even wider in Florida, where 69 percent of roughly 122,000 new applicants… were already in private schools before applying…. Another 18 percent are children entering the K-12 system for the first time as kindergarteners….”

One Threat to Students’ Civil Rights in Private Schools Has Already Emerged in Ohio

Lieberman raises another serious concern: “(S)tates are committing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for families to invest in education options that aren’t held to the same standards of academic accountability and anti-discrimination requirements that public schools must follow by law.”

A serious problem emerged in mid-September in Cleveland, Ohio when the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland announced new regulations for its parishes and for the schools operated by the diocese.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock reported: “Northeast Ohio Catholics have been thrust into the national debate about LGBTQ rights after the diocese released its policy…. for churches and 79 elementary schools and five high schools. It includes bans on students and staff from undergoing gender-affirming care; their use of new pronouns or first names; and the use of restrooms or other facilities different than their ‘God-given biological sex.’ Church and school staff must notify parents if their child may be transgender. Students and staff cannot display LGBTQ pride flags or other symbols. Students cannot attend dances or mixers with a date of the same sex.” Most of these Cleveland Catholic diocesan schools accept EdChoice Expansion vouchers from the state of Ohio.

Democratic State Senator Kent Smith protested this injustice: “The GOP made (vouchers) bigger, made it worse, and there’s a constitutionality problem… Now Ohio taxpayers are underwriting some of this… anti-equality policy. I think there’s a huge constitutional problem with public dollars now supporting an education system that doesn’t support the same values of the constitution itself… The church that many of us know and admire, and the church that some of us grew up in and some of us still belong to was known to stand up for the ‘least of these,’… And this policy does not seem to align with the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland’s history, nor its mission of serving others. And that’s what’s just deeply disappointing.”

The Cleveland Catholic Diocese’s new policy is disappointing. But the larger injustice exposed here is even more distressing. More and more students under the state’s new universal school voucher expansion will be using public tax dollars to pay tuition at Catholic schools in greater Cleveland which are now—seemingly with impunity—explicitly discriminating against a specific class of students whose rights are protected under Title IX of the Constitution of the United States.

What is happening right now in Cleveland, Ohio is a classic example of school privatization threatening the core principle of our system of public education: that our public schools represent our obligation as a society to provide a system of universally available and accessible public schools, which protect all children’s rights and serve their individual needs.

(You may be wondering about the history of threats to the Constitutional separation of church and state—which was undermined in 2002 by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons Harris, and more recently in cases from Oklahoma, Maine and Montana.  See here.)

 

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Chris...