Janresseger: Public Funding for Private Education Is Not Useful to Students in Most Rural Areas and Small Towns
Last Saturday morning, members of the Northeast Ohio Friends of Public Education discussed a report by one of our members, Susie Kaeser, who has been researching how any one of the three school voucher expansions being considered by the Ohio legislature would inequitably redistribute school funding across the rural-urban divide.
Ohio funds private school vouchers from the state’s public school school foundation budget. Kaeser has examined demographic data showing that any voucher expansion would siphon state dollars from all of the state’s public schools including the rural and small town schools on which families depend as they have for generations. At the same time the expansion of private school tuition vouchers would divert state revenues to private schools located primarily in the state’s urban counties. There are 88 counties in Ohio, but across 46 of those counties, school enrollment is so small that only a few can support one or two private schools in addition to their public schools.
As we talked last Saturday, we wondered why so many legislative representatives from rural areas support the expansion of school vouchers and seem so unaware that the families they represent would be unaffected by the expansion of school privatization, while at the same time, their public school districts would lose state dollars diverted to privatization. In this year, with a wave of proposed voucher legislation rushing across more than half of the state legislatures, it is worth considering Kaeser’s specific demographic research here in Ohio. The model bills being distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council and ALEC’s partners in the State Policy Network are sold to state legislators with a beguiling marketplace ideology that neglects to remind legislators of the demographic facts.
Combing the Ohio Department of Education’s website, Kaeser discovered: “There are dramatic differences by county in the number of students enrolled in Ohio’s public schools. Countywide enrollment ranges between as few as 1,690 students in Noble and Morgan counties, and close to 170,000 in Franklin County (metropolitan Columbus). Enrollment in the largest county is about 100 times that of the smallest… Forty-six of Ohio’s 88 counties—more than half of all counties in Ohio, have between 1,600 and 8,000 students, and 9 more have fewer than 10,000 students.”
Kaeser continues: “Like public school enrollment, private school numbers vary widely across the state. The likelihood of there being a private school increases with the size of public school enrollment… Most of the public school population is concentrated in Ohio’s 8 largest urban counties, and so is the private school population. The 8 largest counties have 46% of the public school population and 71% of the private school students… Public education is the only consistently available education choice in Ohio’s 46 small counties, those with less than 8,000 public school students. There are 63 private schools scattered across these 46 counties. There are 11 counties without any private schools; 15 have one (private school); and 14 have two.” Private schools across these 46 counties serve a total of only about 7,000 students. “Public funding for private education is not useful to students in most rural counties. Rural taxpayers underwrite private choice in the state—but not where they live.”
Despite that expanding vouchers should not be a legislative priority in Ohio, there are three different plans being considered today in the Ohio Legislature:
- In the House budget for FY 2024-2025, passed on April 26 and sent forward to the Senate for consideration before its required passage by June 30, eligibility for the income-based statewide EdChoice voucher program would be expanded to qualify all Ohio students whose family income is up to 450 percent of the federal poverty line, or $135,000 per year. It is a nearly universal plan which would qualify 80 percent of Ohio’s students for a private school tuition voucher out of the state budget line that pays for public schooling. Under the House budget voucher expansion, each K-12 voucher would grow from $5,500 to $6,165 and each high school voucher would grow from $7,500 to $8,407.
- The Ohio House of Representatives has been holding hearings on House Bill 11—a universal “Backpack” Education Savings Account school voucher plan (including for private schools, homeschooling and family micro-schools), which the Legislative Service Commission estimates would cost $1.3 billion (again from the state school foundation budget) in its first year of operation.
- The Ohio Senate, on the other hand, in a proposed Parent Educational Freedom Act (Senate Bill 11), would offer all students in grades K-12 a voucher—worth $5,500 for elementary school and middle schoolers and $7,500 for high school students—an investment which the Legislative Service Commission (LSC ) costs out at an additional $528 million in each year of the FY 2024-2025 state biennium. Senate Bill 11 would also increase the homeschooling income tax credit from $250 to $2,000 (which the LSC estimates would cost an additional $38 million in FY 2024 and $44 million in FY 2025). Again the school foundation budget would be the source of these funds.
Like Kaeser, we should all wonder why Ohio’s legislators are so intent on diverting state funding to private school vouchers, which according to her new report, would be largely irrelevant for students living in 46 of Ohio’s 88 counties—counties where there are few private school options.
It is ironic and disappointing that legislators seem to be prioritizing vouchers, when, in the FY 2024-2025 biennial budget, they have an opportunity to fully fund the desperately needed Fair School Funding Plan, which was only partially phased in in the current biennium. The Ohio Fair School Funding Plan is designed to to ensure that all Ohio school districts are adequately funded and that state funding is distributed equitably to serve the needs of Ohio’s students whether their school districts are located in cities, rural areas, small towns or suburbs.
Unlike a private school voucher expansion which would unfairly redistribute state dollars away from Ohio’s rural areas, the Fair School Funding Plan was designed by experts to serve the needs of every one of Ohio’s 1.6 million public school students. As Kaeser concludes: “Legislators representing Ohio’s rural counties can best serve their constituents by investing the state’s education resources in making sure that every student has access to a high quality public education, regardless of the capacity of their community to fund it.”
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