June 24, 2024

Marilou Johanek: Ohio GOP politicians refuse to accept accountability for voucher boondoggle, extremist agenda

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Veteran Ohio journalist Marilou Johanek calls out Ohio’s GOP legislators for their school voucher program. Originally published at the Ohio Capital Journal.

My way or the highway may be your boss’s motto and your cross to bear. But if that is the mantra of publicly elected officials in a representative government — as it sure seems to be in Ohio — all of us have a problem. A big one.

The political bosses in Ohio conduct the people’s business with take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums. They’re not running a democracy; they’re dictating decisions made. They do not entertain questions about their extremist agenda to ban invented threats, ignore real ones, claw back rights, reduce women to breeders, welcome polluters to state parks, or defund public education to pay for private schools.

When challenged over their arguably lawless mandates, Ohio Republican leaders mount a full court press to dismiss, disparage, intimidate, and circumvent countervailing forces that dare confront absolute power. Consider the all-out effort of GOP chieftains to scuttle a statewide lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Republican fetish to fund private schools with hundreds of millions of apparently unlimited public tax dollars.

The partisans sprang into action to protect the $1-billion-dollar-and-counting boondoggle they created last year with universal vouchers that pay private school tuition for the affluent few at the expense of the many — a majority of Ohio students who attend traditional public-school districts. Ever since GOP lawmakers — led by Ohio Senate President and go-to financier of diocesan schools Matt Huffman — opened the government dole to any private school student with their voucher change slipped into the state budget, unaccountable public spending on private schools has exploded.

The amount of tax dollars going to students already attending private, mostly religious schools tripled the first school year uncapped voucher money was there for the taking. Many of the private school families sweeping up the easy cash earn north of $250,000 annually. The initial Republican rationale for diverting state educational funding from public to parochial schools was that the public handouts offered low-income families in failing school districts access to better school options.

But that excuse was a ruse to subsidize religious education with taxpayer money and gradually starve public education of critical financial support. The flood of public funds to prop up Catholic schools came from the same general revenue pool that was supposed to keep public school districts afloat not be shortchanged by private education giveaways.

The fallback for fiscally depleted districts is school levies that fail more often than not. Which, as every public school parent knows, means likely cuts to staff, extracurricular programs, student support services, and capital improvements, decades overdue, shelved again.

Little wonder that more than 200 school districts across Ohio have joined a growing coalition contesting the unprecedented release of public funds to every private school family — regardless of income or quality of home district — in a lawsuit bound for trial.

They argue the private school “EdChoice” voucher expansion breaking the public education budget violates the state constitution by creating a separate, unequal and segregated school system of privatized education bankrolled with money the state is constitutionally obligated to spend on public education alone. Meanwhile public school students go to class in crappy buildings erected in the 1950s (because there’s no money to build a new ones) and enjoy fewer, if any, electives in music and art, or reading tutors, or enough counselors, AP course offerings, gifted services, or small class sizes, etc.

The billion-dollar windfall to offset private school tuition many families can afford would be a godsend to public schools making do with less. God bless those who choose to send their students to expensive parochial institutions. But none of us agreed to collectively finance your private school choice that, frankly, serves a private interest, not a public one.

We agreed instead to fund what serves the greater good, not what satisfies individual preferenceWe do the same with other public services (besides free public education) when our taxes support local law enforcement, fire protection, mental health resources, metro park amenities and other community systems that benefit everybody. The lawsuit to strike down Ohio’s harmful universal vouchers recently added the Upper Arlington school district, in a suburb of Columbus, to its ballooning list of participants.

Ohio’s Republican Lt. Gov. Jon Husted personally pressured the district to pass on the legal fight before the school board voted to join it. Ohio’s Republican Attorney General Dave Yost tried and failed to get a Franklin County court to dismiss the voucher lawsuit altogether. Huffman, the architect of the school privatization scheme in the legislature, refused to sit for a lawsuit deposition.

He even balked at submitting written answers. Finally, the Lima Republican appealed to the Republican-majority state supreme court (he engineered) to judge him above accountability per the litigation. The GOP my-way-or-the-highway bosses aren’t finished trying to out-maneuver public school advocates fighting for fair and equitable public funding. But their secret is out.

In the school year that just ended, taxpayers forked over a billion dollars’ worth of tuition payments for a slice of well-off students enrolled in pricey private schools. That’s not okay with public school families eying another school levy or their kids will do without. The state’s autocrats bosses should be on notice; their take-it-or-leave-it dictate on universal vouchers went too far.

It provoked a public education crusade willing to see you in court, Messrs. Huffman, Yost and Husted. So save the trial date. It’s Nov. 4.

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