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Amid legal battle, the future of Ohio's school vouchers is uncertain

A billboard in downtown Columbus erected by Citizens for Christian Virtue.
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
A billboard in downtown Columbus erected by Citizens for Christian Virtue to try to persuade Columbus City School parents to enroll their children in private schools.

The first time Ohio school vouchers went to court was more than two decades ago. In 2002, the constitutionality of the so-called Cleveland Scholarship, which gave public school students taxpayer-paid vouchers to attend private religious schools came before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is not going to answer those policy questions about what, about whether vouchers should be implemented," said attorney Judith French after the arguments before the high court. "It's really only going to answer one question. And that one question is whether they can be implemented consistent with the Constitution."

French successfully argued the Cleveland voucher case alongside Ken Starr, who gained fame for his investigation into former president Bill Clinton five years earlier. French would go on to become an Ohio Supreme Court justice and is currently the director of the Ohio Department of Insurance.

Twenty-two years after the Cleveland program was upheld as constitutional, the debate is still in court. Nearly a third of the state's school districts have joined a lawsuit filed by a coalition called Vouchers Hurt Ohio.

The most recent addition is the Upper Arlington Board of Education. It split in its vote to join it last week after being urged not to by Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, a longtime voucher and charter school advocate who has two kids in the district. But almost all of the attendees who spoke at the board's June meeting supported becoming a party to the suit.

The lawsuit claims taxpayer-funded private school vouchers are draining hundreds of millions of dollars from Ohio’s constitutionally required public education system – though it started out as an way to help lower-income families escape failing schools. And even people not involved in the lawsuit have raised concerns.

“I think there has been a fundamental change in Ohio's voucher system from where it began back in the ’96-‘97 school year," said Howard Fleeter, an economist who’s analyzed school funding in Ohio since the 1990s.

Ohio will spend $9.6 billion on K-12 education this fiscal year. The state has five voucher programs, which it calls "scholarships":

  • Cleveland Scholarship Program, for families in the Cleveland Municipal School District
  • Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship, for students with a disability and an individualized education plan (IEP)
  • Autism Scholarship, for students with a district-developed IEP or a private diagnosis of autism and an IEP
  • EdChoice, for students attending schools that were categorized as failing
  • EdChoice Expansion, initially for students in low-income families but now available to any family

Fleeter says the state’s five voucher programs will cost nearly a billion dollars this fiscal year. That's far above estimates, and 60% more than the $610 million spent on the voucher programs last year. It's largely because the EdChoice program was expanded to any family that wants those vouchers, even those who have never sent their kids to public schools.
Fleeter estimated this year that includes 55% of kids getting EdChoice vouchers, with most of them going to the largest provider of private education in Ohio – Catholic schools.

“Public money is now paying for private school for people who are already sending their kids to private school," Fleeter said. "And that is a very different policy objective than providing choice for people that were attending low-performing public schools."

There are 1.6 million public school students in Ohio. Just under 150,000 kids were receiving vouchers this year – nearly four times the number issued a decade ago.

Advocates say the money follows the student with vouchers, which can help parents find the best educational fit for their kids and hold schools accountable, and it can bring innovation to public education.

Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima), another longtime supporter of vouchers, said school choice creates a marketplace, which increases both the value and the cost to any product or service.

"The true mission in my mind is to create as many choices as the public sector can provide," Huffman said. He said he thinks most people like their public school, but "if we said you could go only to the government hospital, you can't go to any private hospital, you have to go to the government-run hospital - people would be up in arms about that.”

Aaron Baer with the Center for Christian Virtue has pushed for universal vouchers for years.  

"A lot of times folks that make the financial argument around school choice is they feel really comfortable spending other people's money," Baer said. "If a family has found a school that meets their needs, you talk to most families in Christian schools and private schools, they are scraping by. Even if they might be making over $100,000, they're still having to pay. Having $20,000 of that go to tuition is a real burden, is real heavy on them.”

Baer agreed that most families like their public schools, but as people find out anyone can get a private school voucher, he expects interest to surge.

“We hope it continues to grow. We wanted to grow more and more," Baer said. "And what we see is that as the voucher becomes more available, as more people become more aware of it, you're going to see this market grow.”

But with state tax revenues now $430 million behind estimates, this raises questions about sustainability. And advocates for public education are especially concerned about the future of the Fair School Funding plan, the state’s new public school funding formula that factors in per-pupil costs and each district’s property values and income. It's only halfway through its six-year phase-in, and it will be up to the new session of the General Assembly that starts next year to continue it.

Dan Heintz is a public school teacher and a member of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education. He’s on the steering committee for Vouchers Hurt Ohio.

“The legislature is required to fund a thorough and efficient system of public schools in Ohio. The Ohio Constitution doesn't say a thing about private schools," Heintz said. "It's about the future of public education in Ohio, and it's also about the future of taxing in Ohio, because every single Ohioan pays taxes to the state, so every single tax payer is really a plaintiff to this lawsuit."

The Vouchers Hurt Ohio case is almost certain to end up before the Ohio Supreme Court, which has a conservative Republican majority. A trial date is set in Franklin County court in November.

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at kkasler@statehousenews.org.