The ABC’s of school vouchers


Jessie Balmert - Cincinnati Enquirer



What’s happening with Ohio’s private school vouchers? Here’s what you need to know

Ohio’s debate over private school vouchers gets to the heart of how we want to educate children in this state.

Should students receive money to escape failing public schools? Should taxpayer money be spent on private, mostly religious schools? How do you decide if a school is failing anyway?

Those questions – along with lawmakers’ closely held beliefs about how to best educate students – have blocked a fix to a dramatic increase in students eligible for taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

The Enquirer breaks down how Ohio got to this point and what lawmakers are doing to fix the problem.

What are vouchers?

Ohio has offered some form of taxpayer-funded “scholarships” for students to attend private schools since the mid-1990s. Some of these scholarships, known as vouchers, are based on financial need; others are based on how well the local public school performs on annual report cards.

The 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case that narrowly upheld the constitutionality of private school vouchers stemmed from Ohio’s pilot program at Cleveland schools. The court concluded that Ohio’s program did not violate the Establishment Clause separating church and state.

Over the years, lawmakers have expanded access to vouchers. One voucher focuses on children with autism. Another addresses students with Individualized Education Programs who might need additional help learning.

Ohio was the first state to tie vouchers to the performance – or lack thereof – of local public schools. That voucher option is called EdChoice.

Why did the number of eligible students increase dramatically?

EdChoice, the most popular voucher option, requires a student’s public school district to pay $4,650 toward private school tuition for kindergarten through 8th grade and $6,000 for high school. In contrast, income-based vouchers are paid with state money.

The number of students using EdChoice vouchers has swelled in recent years, growing from 23,500 students receiving $113 million in 2019 to 30,000 students receiving nearly $149 million in 2020.

Those numbers could balloon even further next year for a couple of reasons. First, the most recent state budget allowed private school students to apply for this money even if they were never enrolled in a public school.

Second, there was a huge increase in the number of public schools that were labeled “underperforming,” making their students eligible for private school vouchers. That list grew from about 500 schools during the 2019-2020 school year to 1,227 for the 2020-2021 school year.

Under current law, schools are labeled “underperforming” if they received a D or F in one of several categories on their state report card during two of three years. School officials – and some lawmakers – argue that the state’s report cards don’t adequately measure how well students are learning.

Why is everyone upset about vouchers now?

One reason for the outrage is the dramatic increase in students who would be eligible for private school vouchers. That means local school districts’ budgets would take a hit.

House Speaker Larry Householder has another theory about the sudden interest: No one cared about the size of the list until it included some of the state’s wealthiest school districts.

“It’s become a class problem,” Householder told reporters. “As long as those students were either from Appalachia or from black schools, nobody cared.”

What are the proposed solutions?

Lawmakers have proposed two fixes to address the ballooning number of voucher-eligible schools.

The Ohio Senate plan, which passed Jan. 28, would:

• label fewer schools as “underperforming.” That means fewer students would be eligible for private school scholarships.

• remove buildings that received As, Bs, Cs and some Ds on their overall grade. That would bring the list of “underperforming schools” down from 1,227 to 420.

• make it easier to apply for income-based vouchers, which are paid for from state money rather than school district money. The Senate proposal would raise the income threshold from 200% of the federal poverty level to 300%, which is about $78,600 a year for a family of four.

The Ohio House took a more dramatic approach.

The House plan, which passed Feb. 5, would:

• eliminate vouchers tied to schools’ performance going forward.

• make it easier to apply for income-based vouchers by raising the income threshold from 200% of the federal poverty level to 250%, which is about $65,000 a year for a family of four. If money is left over, some scholarships could be available to students in families up to 300% of the federal poverty level.

• allow students who already receive vouchers because their school is “underperforming” to continue receiving that assistance.

• eliminate state-imposed school takeovers – a former Gov. John Kasich idea that has drawn criticism in recent months. The change would immediately affect three school districts under state control: Lorain, East Cleveland and Youngstown.

Both plans would eliminate the option for students who never attended public schools to receive money for private school vouchers.

Those plans seem pretty different. What happens now?

Lawmakers will need to decide whether vouchers should be awarded to students at “underperforming” schools. This is a key divide right now.

Householder says report cards set local schools up to fail then take away money that those schools could use to improve performance. Sen. Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican and member of the Senate leadership team, says eliminating performance-based vouchers entirely would be a mistake.

Huffman offers several reasons to keep performance-based vouchers: the threat of losing money to private school vouchers holds public schools accountable. Children living in areas where the cost-of-living is higher might not qualify for an income-based voucher.

And ultimately, no one knows how many students eligible for performance-based vouchers would also qualify for vouchers based on income, Huffman said.

Despite differences, there are some points of agreement: most lawmakers don’t want to give vouchers to private school students who never set foot on public school property. And they agree that the current method of labeling schools “underperforming” is flawed.

What’s the correct measure? That’s still up for debate.

“It needs to be simple,” Huffman said. “There needs to be some sense of understanding.”

What is the deadline to fix this voucher problem?

The original deadline was Feb. 1 – the date students could start to apply for private school vouchers. Unable to reach a deal before that deadline, lawmakers pushed it back to April 1.

They could, in theory, delay the application start date again, but that could create more problems. Students and school officials need time to make decisions about vouchers for the coming school year.

Why was Ohio sued over vouchers?

Students, private schools and the conservative Citizens for Community Values sued the Ohio Department of Education, saying Ohio lawmakers made a mistake when they delayed the application date to April 1.

They asked the Ohio Supreme Court to allow students to apply for vouchers now. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, whose office will defend the state, said lawmakers didn’t make an error.

That will be decided in the coming weeks.

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Jessie Balmert

Cincinnati Enquirer

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