December 1, 2023

Jan Resseger: By Adding Huge School Voucher Entitlement for the Rich, Ohio Rises Near Top in State Spending on School Privatization

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Ohio has joined the ranks of states offering taxpayer-funded vouchers with little restraint or oversight. Jan Resseger walks us through the story. Reposted with permission. 

Democracy in Ohio might work better if Ohio’s gerrymandered, Republican supermajority legislature heard major policy initiatives in thorough hearings and if the press dug deeper into the legislative proposals as they are being moved along. Slipping major programs into the omnibus budget without sufficient exploration of their likely long term effects is an old, old legislative trick. Greater Cleveland residents who depend on the Plain Dealer for legislative coverage are learning this lesson now in November after, in June, the legislature passed an explosive expansion of private school tuition vouchers.  Many people are just beginning to realize what happened.

During the winter and early spring, the Ohio legislature considered a bunch of different proposals for school voucher expansion including an Education Savings Account plan, but it was an expansion of the old-fashioned EdChoice tuition vouchers that made it into the House Budget passed in late April.  This plan, also a long priority of Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, was adopted as part of the state budget in June.

Laura Hancock, the Plain Dealer‘s Columbus education reporter explained the various possible voucher expansions on February 7 and April 16. But deeper coverage began to emerge only this fall as we have begun to see the results. On September 5, Hancock reminded readers about the  Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit, filed on January 4, 2022, that is quietly proceeding.  Then on September 6 and October 23, Hancock began to track the number of students applying for vouchers under the new plan.

On Sunday, November 5, the Plain Dealer surprised some of us with a strong editorial, Time for a Discussion on Drift to Privatization for Education Funding, which began: “The General Assembly’s decision this year to greatly expand eligibility for private school vouchers—costing taxpayers more than a quarter-billion dollars and counting—has awoken many Ohioans to a process ongoing for years: the slow but gradual switch in Ohio taxpayer dollars from public schools to private and parochial ones.”

In their November 5 editorial, the editors also began to explore some of the ways the current Ohio Legislature has shifted the purpose and weakened oversight of vouchers, which “first surfaced in the 1995-1996 state budget (and) were limited to pupils in the Cleveland public schools.” “Ostensibly, this was to improve parental choice and give kids in failing schools more options. That’s how it started. But the eye-popping amounts should prompt a closer look and broader conversation… about the implications of this change. Especially since the private and parochial schools getting these larger sums are not subject to the same requirements of transparency about outcomes, spending, and nondiscrimination, or the need to accept all applicants as public schools are.”

A week later, in a detailed report on Sunday, November 12, the new EdChoice voucher expansion made the Plain Dealer‘s front page, Ohio Ranks Near Top of States for School Voucher Spending: “This is not only because of the increase in voucher money for each child but also because of an expansion in eligibility, allowing everyone to receive some form of help to pay for their children’s education outside of their home school district.”

The tone of the article gets a little weird when the newspaper’s data wonk, Zachary Smith, quotes Robert Enlow as his source, and Enlow enthuses about the voucher expansion: “Other states are seeing a sea change in how we look at education and how we fund it going forward, and Ohio is on the tip of the spear for that.”  Enlow is identified in the story as, “president and chief executive of EdChoice, a national pro-school voucher nonprofit.”  EdChoice was formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice founded by privatizers Milton and Rose Friedman. Smith goes to EdChoice for accurate data about Ohio’s voucher expansion, but Robert Enlow himself sees Ohio’s voucher growth as a win for his own cause.

Smith continues—correcting for Enlow’s bias: “It’s that lead, however, that concerns critics of the voucher program, who say vouchers are taking money away from the public school system and only educating a small percentage of the school population.”  Smith continues with the facts about the expansion of the size of each voucher and which students now qualify for a voucher:

“Before the expansion, the minimum voucher amount was $5,500 for students in K-8 and $7,500 for grades 9-12…. With the expansion, the maximum amount is now $6,165 for students in K-8 and $8,407 in 9-12.  The state also expanded eligibility for the full amount to 450% of the federal poverty level, or $135,000 for a family of four, from the previous 250% of the federal poverty level. Those with higher incomes will receive prorated benefits. For instance, families at 451% to 500% of the poverty level are eligible for $5,200 for K-8 and $7,050 for 9-12. The value ratchets down as incomes get higher. The minimum amount for families earning above 750%, or $225,000 or more for a family of four, is $650 for grades K-8 and $950 for high school. As a result, the number of families applying for vouchers has also increased.”

Smith quotes Policy Matters Ohio’s Tanisha Pruitt laying out the fiscal implications for the state budget and for the “school foundation section” of the budget which funds Ohio’s public schools as well as its several private school tuition voucher programs: “The cost of Ohio’s voucher programs has increased from $20.5 million in fiscal year 2006 to roughly $600 million in fiscal year 2023… The large increase in voucher costs from 2021 ($442 million) to 2022 ($555 million) was the result of both a significant increase in the number of voucher students as well as an increase in voucher amounts.”  Smith adds: “By 2025, Pruitt predicts voucher allocations in the state budget are expected to cross the $1 billion threshold… ‘Vouchers have grown exponentially, while at the same time we look at funding for our public schools and (it) grows incrementally,’ Pruitt says.”

Smith reports the latest data about enrollment growth in Ohio’s universal EdChoice voucher program: “Now for the 2023-2024 school year, more than 103,000 vouchers have already been approved, with nearly 50,000 additional applications still being processed… Approval of these applicants would mean 1-in-12 children in Ohio would be going to school on a voucher.”

What Smith fails to point out in his important front-page article, however, is that while the declared purpose of Ohio vouchers, when they were launched back in 1995-1996, was to help the state’s poorest and most vulnerable children, today middle and upper income families are taking the vouchers. The legislature expanded the program by radically raising the income eligibility level to qualify upper income families whose children in many cases already attend private schools. The legislature just expanded voucher eligibility for the rich, not the poor. This year the Ohio Legislature created a new private school tuition voucher entitlement for Ohio’s wealthiest families.

Ohio’s new universal school voucher expansion perfectly exemplifies the critique in a new book from Teachers College Press,  The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity: “As currently structured, voucher policies in the United States are unlikely to help the students they claim to support. Instead, these policies have often served as a facade for the far less popular reality of funding relatively advantaged (and largely White) families, many of whom already attended—or would attend—private schools without subsidies. Although vouchers are presented as helping parents choose schools, often the arrangements permit the private schools to do the choosing… Advocacy that began with a focus on equity must not become a justification for increasing inequity. Today’s voucher policies have, by design, created growing financial commitments of taxpayer money to serve a constituency of the relatively advantaged that is redefining their subsidies as rights—often in jurisdictions where neighborhood public schools do not have the resources they need.” (The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity, p. 290)

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