May 1, 2024

Mercedes Schneider: Ohio’s *School Vouchers for All*: Expanded, Expensive, but Not Audited

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Teacher, writer and researcher Mercedes Schneider outlines some of the shenanigans surrounding Ohio’s voucher program. Reposted with permission. 

EdChoice, Ohio’s school voucher program, is the subject of a lawsuit dating back to January 2022. Among other issues, the suit notes, “Due in large part to the hundreds of millions of dollars diverted to funding private school tuition through the EdChoice Program, the General Assembly has failed in its constitutional obligation to fully fund Ohio’s public school districts at the level which the General Assembly has, itself, determined to be required.”

Vouchers for All! Money for Public Schools? Well, um…

Since the time the suit was filed, the Ohio legislature has expanded the program such that families with annual incomes of 450% above the poverty line, or $135,000 for a family of four, are eligible for school voucher funds, but it doesn’t stop there: Even families exceeding the $135k/yr cap can receive a small percentage of school voucher funding– a move that arguably contributes to the shifting of school voucher money away from lower-income families and children of color to more affluent families and more white students. From the January 30, 2024, Ohio Capital Journal:

The lawsuit has been active for two years, after Vouchers Hurt Ohio, the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, and five school districts around Ohio joined together to argue that the private school voucher program has become an disproportionately overgrown and flies in the face of the public school education established in Ohio’s constitution.

Over the last two years, the number of public school districts in support of the lawsuit has grown to more than 100, according to the coalition.

Meanwhile, the legislature passed its newest budget with near-universal eligibility for private school vouchers, at 450% of the poverty line, or an annual income of $135,000 for a family of four.

Even above that income level, students can receive at least 10% of the max scholarship level, which Huffman’s office spelled out in a press release after passage of the budget in 2023.

Since then, Ohio Department of Education data showed an increase of more than 2,500 students opting for vouchers from 2022 to 2023. Adding in the previous year, the voucher expansion program grew by more than 6,000 students from 2021 to 2023.

Last year, 32% of students with vouchers were considered “not low-income qualified,” and 66.4% of participants were white.

Voucher Expansion: White People Like ‘Em.

As for the shift in school district demographics, the January 05, 2022, Ohio Capital Journal notes the following:

The group of school districts accused the General Assembly of passing school funding that not only creates a separate system for private education, but also perpetuates segregation as part of it.

“EdChoice is being used disproportionately by non-minority students, although originally it was touted as providing more options for low-income and minority students,” said Nneka Jackson, board member for the Richmond Heights Local School District. “We know this isn’t true.”

Jackson said Richmond Heights has seen a drastic change in population demographics since the EdChoice voucher system was instituted. The population of Richmond Heights includes 40% white overall residents. Before the EdChoice vouchers, Jackson said the makeup of students in the school district was 26% white and 74% students of color.

After EdChoice allowed more students to go to private schools on state subsidies, Jackson said Richmond Heights’ school district tilted overwhelmingly to a student population of 3% white and 97% students of color.

“The private school voucher program is re-segregating our schools and that is unfair, unlawful and unconstitutional,” Jackson said.

In the January 03, 2024, Ohio Capital Journal, former state representative and former chair of the Ohio House Primary and Secondary Education subcommittee for the House Finance Committee, Stephen Dyer, adds the following regarding the EdChoice program:

Since the most recent voucher participation numbers were released, Dyer did his own analysis of the voucher program, finding “a very different goal” compared to when it began.

“It’s now going to wealthier, white families to subsidize the decisions they’d already made to send their kids to private schools,” Dyer told the OCJ.

In an analysis he posted to his blog [in November 2023], Dyer said ODE data showed nearly nine in 10 new applications to the voucher expansion went to white students, and more new vouchers for high schoolers went to families making more than $150,000 annually than went to families making less.

The most recent data on Ohio’s EdChoice voucher expansion showed 66.4% of participants are white, with the Black population of voucher recipients coming in at 15%, the second highest number reported.

In 2022, 65.9% of expansion vouchers went to white students, up from 64.1% in 2021.

A vast majority – 9 in 10 – vouchers come from just 31 school districts, according to Dyer.

“Those districts’ racial makeup is, on average, 21% white,” he writes in his analysis. “Yet 46% of EdChoice voucher recipients are white – more than double the percentage of white students than attend the 31 public school districts where nine in 10 voucher students would otherwise attend.”

Senator Huffman: “Voucher Deposition? I Don’t Wanna Talk About It.”

Ohio senator Matt Huffman supports EdChoice; in his June 2023 press release, Huffman notes that “parents should have an option” and that EdChoice has indeed been expanded to be “universally available to every Ohio student based on a sliding scale of income eligibility,” including the costly plum: “Every student in Ohio will be eligible for a scholarship worth at least 10% of the maximum scholarship regardless of income.”

Huffman is trying really hard not to sit for a deposition related to the EdChoice lawsuit. In January 2024, Huffman “appeal[ed] a Franklin County court decision requiring him to submit written answers to questions “on his knowledge of school funding in Ohio and his involvement in the enactment and expansion of the EdChoice program through Amendment Substituted House Bill 110.” His appeal was dismissed in March 2024, so, in April 2024, Huffman filed an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court, citing “testimonial privilege.”

Matt Huffman

Feeding the Expanded Beast

In November 2023, WOSU reported that the Ohio school voucher program had exceeded its budget by $15M:

The State of Ohio spent $15 million more for the expanded school voucher program this year than it had estimated, and the program, which allows every child regardless of income to apply, is only expected to grow in the coming years.

The Ohio Legislative Services Commission initially estimated the EdChoice Voucher program would cost $397 million this fiscal year for the new vouchers. The numbers are now out and show over 66,000 families applied to the new program costing $412 million this year alone.

In total, over 90,000 families applied to the school voucher program, when including renewals from previous years and the Cleveland Scholarship Program, costing more than $580 million.

The state estimated the program will cost $439 million next year. That would bring the total cost of publicly-funded private education in Ohio to more than $1 billion once the cost of vouchers allowed in prior years and other costs the state pays for — like busing and paperwork — are factored in.

In March 2024, the Ohio Capital Journal noted that as of March 18, 2024, the number of EdChoice expansion applications has already exploded, with applications being accepted until June 30, 2024, the end of the fiscal year:

There have been more than 91,100 applications for Ohio’s private school voucher expansion program so far this school year — a dramatic increase compared to previous years.

Out of 91,157 voucher expansion applications, 87,312 scholarships have been awarded as of March 18 — amounting to $394,015,641 in allocated funding, according to the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce. Applications are continuing to be accepted through the end of the fiscal year.

There were 26,390 voucher expansion applications submitted in 2023 with 24,323 scholarships awarded, and 25,011 applications submitted and 21,873 scholarships awarded in 2022.

So, exploding beyond budgeted funding is certainly an issue– especially since, as the February 23, 2024, Ohio Education Association (OEA) notes, Ohio’s public schools are funded using the same budget line item– which means less money for public schools as more money feeds Ohio’s beefy school vouchers:

As noted in recent news coverage, the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce doesn’t yet know how much the state’s new universal voucher program will cost this year. But, with the explosion in the number of wealthier families taking public taxpayer dollars to pay for private school tuition for students who were already attending private schools in the first place, it is clear the state’s spending on the universal voucher program will far exceed the original budget estimates.

So, the fact is, when it comes time to pass the next state budget in 2025, that leaves less money in that line item for Ohio’s public schools. Exactly how much less and how will that impact public schools? It’s unclear. But, the uncertainty around those questions is causing school districts across the state to hold onto larger reserves to weather future state funding shortfalls, and in some cases, has prevented districts from feeling comfortable spending down the soon-to-expire federal pandemic-relief money that is currently inflating some of the figures. In the end, that uncertainty is hurting our students, as money that should be used to recruit and retain public school educators, address students’ mental health needs, and make up for lost ground remains unspent.


Audit, Schmaudit: Has ECOT Taught Us Nothing?

With so many millions being doled out year after year, auditing the program should also be an issue, but it seems not so much– even with Ohio’s history of the multi-million-dollar fraud-trap, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), on the fringes of memory, as Dyer notes:

At the very least as the voucher program continues in Ohio, Dyer hopes a plan to audit the program is forthcoming for the billions of dollars spent to subsidize it. He pointed to an audit of the defunct Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which exposed false enrollment numbers and led to court battles to claw back more than $60 million in state funding from the online charter school.

ECOT closed in 2018. In 2016, the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce determined that it overpaid ECOT $60M. ECOT appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court in March 2021 and lost its appeal over this $60M in December 2021. In June 2022, the Columbus Dispatch reported that a state audit found that ECOT owed $117M:

Ohio Auditor Keith Faber on Tuesday said the school owes $106.6 million to the state Department of Education and another $10.6 million to the Attorney General’s office. Faber’s auditors found that ECOT wasn’t entitled to some of the state money it received in 2016 and 2017 and none of the cash it received in 2018.

The March 21, 2024, Ohio Capital Journal refers to the ECOT scandal and includes the question of EdChoice monies being audited as well as the assurance that such auditing is happening. However, there is no publicly-available EdChoice audit report referenced– just the “feeling” that some undisclosed “safeguards” are in place to prevent EdChoice from becoming another ECOT:

[Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon] Husted said the vouchers have “accountability and oversight” safeguards in place so something like the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow online charter school scandal from 2018 will never happen again.

ECOT was forced to shut down after the Ohio Department of Education said Ohio’s first online charter school needed to repay much of its state aid for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years after the school inflated enrollment numbers. ECOT still owed the state $117 million in 2022.

“I actually just spoke with (Ohio Department of Education and Workforce) Director (Steve) Dackin about this the other day, and I asked him whether he felt the safeguards are in place to make sure something like that didn’t happen again and he reassured me he thought there were,” Husted said.

Husted’s assurances aside, the January 2022 lawsuit notes that Ohio’s private schools are not subject to Sunshine Laws and are therefore able to escape the accountability to the public that audits of taxpayer money would bring:

Because private schools receiving EdChoice funding are not subject to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws or most other regulations applicable to public schools, these private facilities operate with impunity, exempt from public scrutiny despite the public funding that sustains them.

Private schools receiving EdChoice Vouchers are subjected to few statutory and regulatory obligations towards students, communities, and taxpayers at large. Private schools receiving EdChoice Program vouchers are not subject to any public fiscal accountability, such as audits, of the public funding they receive.

And That Is Where We leave It for Now.

The January 2022 lawsuit is supposed to go to trial in November 2024, as NBC4i reports. Moreover, depending upon how the Ohio Supreme Court proceeds, Ohioans may well find out what Senator Huffman is trying so hard not to talk about regarding his “individual beliefs and opinions on the EdChoice program.” Too, once the fiscal year ends, the public will have the opportunity to know just how expensive the “universally available” EdChoice costs. What they won’t know is the degree to which the fiscal balloon is inflated by shady dealings. However, both the lawsuit and continued media tagging of EdChoice with ECOT might just pressure lawmakers to answer sunshinedly for EdChoice’s price tag bloat at public-school expense.

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