COLUMUS, OHIO — Columbus City Schools is the latest district to join a group planning to sue the state of Ohio over its EdChoice school voucher system.
The program, which allows families to use public funds to send children to private schools, violates the Ohio Constitution, the group Vouchers Hurt Ohio contends. It argues that elected officials are failing to meet their constitutional duty to fund a “thorough and adequate” system of public schools.
The Columbus Board of Education voted 6-1 to join the group, with board member James Ragland voting against it. The board waived a usual rule that such resolutions be read twice and decided to instead vote after just one reading.
“We are a consortium fighting to ensure the state of Ohio acts within its own legal bounds,” board member Michael Cole said. ” To ensure that public school districts … are not again harmed by how dollars are siphoned off to accommodate, illegally and unfairly, other schools.”
Vouchers Hurt Ohio has hired the Cleveland-based law firm Walter Haverfield. It’s not clear when the court challenge will be filed.
“The original idea was we would rescue these kids from a so-called failing school,” said Bill Phillis, executive director at Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding. “This has become a rebate program for people that just want to have a private education rather than the public system.”
As the state’s largest school district, Columbus will undoubtedly be the largest contributor to the cause. The dues to join are $2 per student, according to enrollment on the 2020 state report card — which equals just over $97,000 for Columbus, which enrolled 48,526 students.
That’s small change, however, when compared to the voucher program’s impact. Columbus is affected more than any other district, losing nearly 5,800 students and $28 million in the 2019-20 school year alone.
Ohio Republicans, who dominate both chambers of the legislature, are also mulling a new bill that would create a universal voucher program, essentially making every public-school student in the state eligible for a voucher for private school. West Virginia is the only other state to adopt such a system, scheduled to start in 2022.
Currently EdChoice vouchers are only available to students whose home schools are performing poorly on their state report cards. Their district must pay their family $4,560 yearly for K-8 tuition and $6,000 for high school.
Vouchers Hurt Ohio lists 72 member districts on its website, including Licking Heights, South-Western, Westerville and Worthington locally.
Ohio has more than 600 total public districts.
The new organization evolved from the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, a group involved in the DeRolph court cases, in which the Ohio Supreme Court declared the state’s public-school funding system was unconstitutional.
Board member Ragland, the lone person to vote “no,” told fellow board members that the lawsuit “demonizes” families for making the choices they believe are best for their children, using the resources available to them.
He noted that some district employees have the resources to move outside Columbus, to send their children to other districts, or to send their children to private schools.
“Where I must draw the line is where we practice school choice for our own families and then, with this vote, deny school choice for other families,” Ragland said. “That is the height of hypocrisy.”
He said Columbus City Schools must improve its offerings to draw families back, as well as the funds that are traveling with them.
Ragland is the director of provider outreach for School Choice Ohio, a group that advocates for private and charter schools. In September, the Columbus Education Association, the district’s teachers union, took a vote of “no confidence” in Ragland’s ability to serve the district.