By Kathleen Knight Abowitz

A majority of Ohio’s school districts will soon pay more out of their local school budgets to send students in their district to a private or religious school. The reason? The expansion of the Ohio EdChoice voucher program. This program enables students, who would normally be assigned to a public school which has a record of low scores on the state report card, to enroll in private and/or religious schools who are accepted into the EdChoice program. The state money allocated for the student’s local school district to spend on their education gets sent to the private/religious school. That scholarship pays or partially pays the tuition for a child’s private school attendance, whether or not that child has ever attended their district public schools.

This year, EdChoice has kicked into high gear, greatly expanded by Ohio legislators in the 2019 budget. The state voucher budget has increased by over 400% since 2002. Yet in that same time period, Ohio legislators have increased the overall per pupil expenditure by a mere 12%.

Ohio has an embarrassing history of underfunding public education while siphoning off public funds to private schooling and for-profit charter school enterprises. This is the state where the funding formula has not had any change since the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that our current funding formula was unconstitutional. This too is the state where the massive ECOT charter scandal cost tax-payers millions in 2018, but whose most legislative session produced no meaningful policy corrections to more carefully regulate charter schools in the state. Indeed, the latest budget weakens the oversights over charter school sponsors, and weakens charter school closure laws.

Lawmakers have based the expansion of EdChoice on “failing school districts” — on the state report card results which bases performance indicators largely on the outcomes of standardized tests. While public school teachers and leaders need and want to be held accountable for their work, it is unclear why they are held to a higher bar than charter schools which receive the same state funding, and why their quality is judged by outcomes on standardized tests, which do not provide a holistic evaluation of a school’s impact on a student.

It is also unclear why the state legislature feels the need to punish public schools instead of helping them succeed. EdChoice funding will hit Ohio school districts hard in the upcoming year and years to come, if nothing changes. In the upcoming year, over 400 of the 610 districts in Ohio will be paying, out of their local budgets, to send students to a private and/or religious school in the coming year.

District budgets are extremely tight and will not long withstand this funneling of dollars. Sending ten students to a private school in most school districts will be the cost of one teacher for a school year. Imagine the collective impact of this policy over the next several years in Ohio on public schools in our communities.

Public schools are not without flaws or problems. But these schools are the heartbeat of many communities across Ohio. Our state’s elected officials have long believed that the way to “fix” schools is to punish them. We must reverse this trend for the sake of our communities, and our state’s future.

Alert:  Read Kathleen’s updated opinion piece in Cleveland.com.

Kathleen Knight Abowitz is a public school advocate and member of the Statewide Leadership Team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network.  She also is professor of educational leadership at Miami University and serves on the Board of Education for the Talawanda School District.