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Privatizing Education - Vouchers

Updated: 10 hours ago

Education is a primary responsibility of state government and funding a system of public

schools is enshrined in the Ohio Constitution. When lawmakers allocate public funds to private

schools or nonpublic education opportunities, they are privatizing education. Vouchers – tuition

scholarships for private education, are one of many privatizing options. In 2023 Ohio made

access to private school tuition payments available to all students and became a national leader in

privatizing a public good - education.


Updated: March 1, 2024

In Ohio, privatizing education takes three forms: vouchers, charter schools, and tax credits. Each approach allows families who opt out of public schools to use public funds for their education alternative. Those funds are not subject to oversight by an elected school board and operate with fewer constraints and less transparency than the public schools serving the same community.


LWVO positions relevant to privatizing education:

  1. LWVO opposes vouchers.

  2. LWVO believes that public funds should be used only in public schools

  3. LWVO supports a funding system for public elementary and secondary education that is accountable and responsive to the taxpayers.

  4. The locally elected school board is constitutionally established to provide oversight and direction to the educational system in each district.

  5. The school board should have the authority and the responsibility to require fiscal, management and procedural accountability and enforcement of charter terms and conditions.

Focus On Advocacy

  • Oppose Universal Vouchers

  • Increase the number of school districts that join the litigation challenging the constitutionality of EdChoice vouchers

  • Oppose any mechanism that gives unchartered nonpublic schools public fundsOppose use of capital improvement funds for private schools

LEARN MORE



Public Funds for Private Education

In 1825, at the inception of Ohio’s public school system and then again in the 1851 Ohio Constitution, lawmakers reserved the use of public funds for public education, the system that includes everyone, is available everywhere, and is accountable to the public for what is achieved and how funds are spent. 


This tradition and the strict separation of church and state that it confirms, started to change in 1965 when the legislature made public school districts responsible for transporting private school students. By 1990 the state’s generosity toward private schools was visible in a state funded program to pay for Auxiliary Services and Administrative costs. 


In 2023, the 135th General Assembly appropriated more than $166.8 million for Auxiliary Services providing $927 for each student attending a private school. The budget also included $75.4 million for Administrative Cost Reimbursements at the rate of $475 per student.  This is more per public funding than many public schools receive.  


The idea of “privatizing” education took hold in Ohio in 1997 when the legislature decided to fund private school tuition for children attending low performing public schools in Cleveland. This was part of a national movement to remove any barrier to private schools receiving public funds. The “school choice” movement was intent on transforming education from a public good to an individual right, and to rely on a marketplace approach to drive education quality


The state investment in private education has continued to grow since then as it added four more voucher programs, extended eligibility in each program, and increased scholarship awards. In 2023 the legislature made access to vouchers universal. The transfer of public funds to private schools did not bring with it new regulations for private schools or requirements for transparency. 

Ohio residents have always had the right to attend a private school, but at their own expense. Most private schools are operated by religious organizations. The separation of church and state was clear. That line has disappeared.  


Public education is a public good because everyone benefits from educated citizens, regardless of whether they have children who use the schools. In the privatized environment, private education at public expense is an individual right and the beneficiary is the student. Privatizing changes education from serving the common good to upholding individual rights.


Voucher Changes Over Time

In 1997 at the urging of Governor George Voinovich, the Legislature created the Cleveland Scholarship Program, Ohio’s first voucher program. Vouchers were justified as a way to help Cleveland students escape their underfunded public schools, schools characterized by high concentration of poor and minority children. Most of the eligible private schools were religious and enrollment was declining. 


In 1999 a coalition of civic and religious groups, including the LWVO, challenged the constitutionality of the Cleveland vouchers as a violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment of the US Constitution. Known as the Zelman case, plaintiffs won at the district court level. While nearly all students attended a religious school, in 2002 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled the program to be school neutral and legal.


The Zelman decision opened the door to voucher expansion. Ohio lawmakers created four additional voucher programs, each targeting different populations. The Autism (2003) and Jon Peterson Special Needs (2011) programs focus on children with disabilities.  EdChoice (2005)  gave students in low performing schools throughout the state access to vouchers. EdChoice Expansion (2014) was created to give low income households resources for private school use. The target was households whose income is below 200% of the federal poverty level. Over time the legislature has expanded access and increased the per pupil voucher value for each program. 


Vouchers were funded by the deduction method: local school districts were expected to fund part of the cost of each voucher that went to a student who lived in their school district.  EdChoice vouchers were tied to test scores. Since test scores are correlated to the income level of student, the EdChoice program punished high poverty districts that had to forfeit state funds to underwrite private school vouchers. 


In 2021 the 134th General Assembly adopted a state budget that changed the funding mechanism for vouchers, and the method for setting the value of each scholarship. Deduction funding was replaced by direct funding of all vouchers from the state budget. Spending for public schools, charter schools and vouchers were assigned to the same line item in the state budget. 


Table 1: Voucher Amount by Year and Grade Span for EdChoice Vouchers

FY20-21

FY22-23

FY 24-25

K-8

$5,500

$6,166

9-12

$7,500

$8,405


Lawmakers also linked all increases in scholarship amounts to increases in state spending on public school students. The value of each voucher is set in each state budget and has increased over time. Funding levels will continue to grow if public school spending increases


The legislature has also made adjustments to the performance based EdChoice program. In 2020, when the number of districts with schools deemed to be failing was set to explode from 140 to more than 410 – two-thirds of the districts in the state- lawmakers made two changes.  They limited the traditional EdChoice program to school districts where 20% or more of the students qualify for Title 1 services (high poverty districts), and to schools whose test scores fall in the lowest 20% of all public schools in Ohio for two consecutive years. 


Each year the number of districts and the number of schools where EdChoice applies changes, as does the number of new performance-based EdChoice vouchers that are awarded.  During the 2021-22 school year there were 473 buildings in 87 districts where state tests triggered access to EdChoice vouchers. The next year it was 412 buildings in 57 districts, and in FY 24 and 25 the numbers are 460 buildings in 62 districts. Once a student is awarded a voucher and they meet certain conditions, they are eligible to renew it until they graduate regardless of any changes in ranking of the public schools where they live. By increasing access to income-based vouchers, the Legislature guaranteed that new vouchers would still be available in school districts that were no longer on the list of schools with low test scores.


The 135th General Assembly used the budget to dramatically change access to vouchers by changing the rules for the EdChoice Expansion program, the income-based vouchers. They increased eligibility for the full value of a voucher from household incomes at or below 250% of the federal poverty level to 450%, and guaranteed some level of funding for all families regardless of income. 


According to the Thomas Fordham Institute, this change made Ohio one of 10 states with universal access to vouchers. The change effectively made complete the transfer of responsibility for funding private education from the individual family to the public.


Table 2: Voucher Awarded by Program – 2021-22 to 23-24 School Year 

Program

# awarded FY22

# awarded FY 23

# awarded FY 24*


EdChoice Expansion

17,152

24,323

84,293


EdChoice

33,129

40,629

42,205

Cleveland

 7,790

8,282  

8,147


Autism

4,232

 4,856

  5,055

Jon Peterson

7,407

  8,626

  8,674


Total

69,720

86,716

    148,374

Source: Reports Portal, ODE, Private Education/ Scholarships

Removing eligibility limits resulted in an exponential increase in EdChoice Expansion applications and scholarships. EdChoice Expansion vouchers became the voucher option with the greatest use and highest price tag. While the number of income based vouchers more than tripled in one year, the performance based EdChoice, Autism and Jon Peterson Special Needs scholarships experienced small increases. The Cleveland Scholarship Program lost participants. 


In the 2022-23 school year, there were 169,500 students enrolled in a chartered nonpublic school, and 86,716 of them received a voucher.  By February of 2024, the number of vouchers had grown to to 148,374. Most of that change was in the EdChoice Expansion program where the number of vouchers ballooned from 24,323 in FY23 to 84,293 – growth of more than 60,000.  EdChoice Expansion vouchers primarily benefit students who are already enrolled in a private school. 


Making vouchers available to all did not cause a mass exodus from public schools. The Department of Education and Workforce (DEW) website reports public school enrolment in the fall of 2023 at 1,751,356 when charter school, traditional public schools and Joint Vocational School enrollment is combined.  

 

Table 3: Scholarship Payments by Program (in millions), FY 22 and FY 23 and Estimated FY 24 and FY 25

Program

FY22

FY 23

F24

FY25

EdChoice Expansion

$102.9

$121.3

$397.8

$439.1


EdChoice

$212.5

$228.2

$276.6

$299.0

Cleveland

$ 46.0

$ 45.0

$ 54.0

$ 55.4

Autism

$116.5

$122.4

$ 135.5

$142.3

John Peterson

$ 76.6

$ 77.9

$100.6

$115.1

Total

$557. 5

$594.85

$964.5

$1005.0

 Sources: Legislative Budget Office of the Legislative Service Commission, Greenbook, Main Operating Budget: Final Budget:HB 33, 135th General Assembly, Department of Education and Workforce. The same document was also produced for HB 110 the operating budget approved by 134th General Assembly. www.lsc.ohio.gov/budget/135/hb33134th


State spending on private school tuition grew dramatically, following changes in access and scholarship funding levels.  In only four years, overall spending on vouchers grew from $557.5 million, to a projected $1.05 billion in FY 25.  The EdChoice Expansion program has mushroomed from $102.9 million in FY 22 to $439.1 million in FY 25.


Ohio’s Private Schools

Ohio has two categories of private schools: chartered nonpublic schools and non-chartered nonpublic schools. Chartered nonpublic schools are the only private schools that are eligible to receive public funds. They are eligible to participate in Ohio’s voucher programs, and to receive state funds for Auxiliary Services and Administrative costs. In FY 24 the state recognized 714 chartered nonpublic schools. 


While only chartered nonpublic schools are eligible to receive vouchers, schools are not required to participate in the programs. In FY 23 there were 543 schools that accepted EdChoice vouchers. That year, 320 schools accepted Autism vouchers, 484 participated in Jon Peterson Special Needs, and 65 accepted Cleveland Scholarship students. Once a student is granted a voucher, they can renew it until they leave the private school or graduate. 


Private schools are not available in every Ohio community. (See Susan Kaeser's 2023 study, Where Do Ohio's Children Receive Their Education.) Most private schools are found in the 12 Ohio counties that have more than 20 private schools. There are 11 counties with no private schools and 49 more that have between 1 and 4 private schools.


According to Ohio’s Administrative Code, Rule 3301-35-09, any school that serves 15 students or offers three grade levels is eligible to apply for a charter. They must agree to offer “a general education of high quality.”  Most chartered nonpublic schools earn this status by meeting accreditation standards from one of six organizations approved by the State Board of Education. A school may also apply directly to the Department of Education and Workforce.

Approved Accrediting Organizations

Association of Christian Schools International

Catholic Conference of Ohio

Ohio Jewish Communities, Inc.

Lutheran Schools of Ohio

Seventh Day Adventist Schools, Ohio Conference

Ohio Association of Independent Schools

Source: Legislative Service Commission: Ohio Administrative Code, Rule 3301-35-09, Chartered nonpublic schools


While public schools are part of a statewide system that is governed by local boards of education and state laws and regulations, private education is not a system but a collection of independently operated and privately governed schools. They select students and charge tuition. They differ in size, staffing level, offerings, curriculum, mission and purpose. Some exceed state standards and opportunities, while others do not meet them. The lack of regulations and common standards means it is impossible to easily compare schools and make informed decisions when making a choice.


A hallmark of private education is the lack of state regulation, and the goal of some private school organizations is to keep it that way. Private schools are different from public schools in multiple ways. Unlike public schools, private schools:  

  • choose who attends; 

  • may not discriminate based on race or national origin but have no other obligations to include all children including children with disabilities;

  • may consider religion in making hiring decisions;

  • need not meet a specific student-teacher ratio;

  • allow religion and corporal punishment; 

  • are not evaluated based on state tests; 

  • are not subject to sunshine laws.


When private schools receive public funds, the rules don’t change, and they are not required to be transparent about education or funding decisions. There is no accountability to taxpayers.

 

Private Eduction: The Legislature's Priority

When the 135th General Assembly approved HB33, they removed all income limits on access to an EdChoice Expansion vouchers, and made households with incomes up to 450% of poverty level eligible for the full voucher amount. This decision established that private education is a state priority that takes precedence over fully funding the public system or meeting multiple needs of children. This decision has profound consequences.


  1. Lawmakers made private education at public expense an entitlement, even if households that were already willing and able to fund that option are the primary beneficiaries. Providing poor children an escape route from public schools is no longer the rationale for spending public funds on private education.  


  1. Taxpayers from every corner of the state now fund private education, even if it is not an option where they live and even if it takes funds away from the public schools they depend on. 


  1. Lawmakers made private education their priority for spending on children. They were much more generous with access to private education than access to child care, food, or health care. (See more from Dr. Tanesha S. Pruitt, Policy Matters Ohio, here.)


Compare these differences in income eligibility for a family of four in the state budget:

Private school vouchers

$225,000 

Child nutrition assistance

$39,000 

Healthcare

$62,200

Child care

$43,500

  1. When lawmakers agreed to fund private education, they did not add new regulations that typically accompany public funds. The state now funds a regulated and accountable public system that everyone is entitled to use, and a collection of unregulated and unaccountable private schools that pick their students. There is no standard for evaluating or comparing private school opportunities, and private schools and public alternatives. 


  1. It remains to be seen what impact universal vouchers will have on private school participation in voucher programs, formation of new private schools, tuition costs, private school giving, and public school enrollment. 

Other Proposals to Privatize Education

Ohio also has a tax-credit program that gives tax breaks to donors to private school scholarship granting organizations, or to families who homeschool their children.  So far proposals to extend vouchers to nonchartered nonpublic schools, to open capital improvement funds to private schools, education savings accounts, capturing property tax revenue for private schools, and a “backpack” approach that makes every student a consumer have been discussed and some have been introduced. 


Universal vouchers is not likely to end legislative interest in expanding privatizing tools.


Conclusion

Education choice is now a reality in Ohio. It means families have the freedom to attend a public school that admits them, and have the public pay for it.


Private education has always been an option in Ohio and until 1997 the norm was for families who opted out of the public system that they helped to fund, accepted responsibility for funding the alternative they preferred. This recognition of the public benefits of a public system is disappearing as the public is expected to fund private choice. 


Private schools, for now, continue to be unregulated.  The allocation of public funds was not accompanied by new standards for public accountability that are required of public schools and of almost every other private entity that accepts public funds. 


The LWVUS position on privatization calls for “accountability, positive community impact, and preservation of the common good when considering the transfer of government services, assets, and/or functions to the private sector.” The legislature has privatized education, but has not met any of the conditions that would make this meet basic values of strong public policy.


The evolution of choice, accomplished over the last 30 years, is a financial threat to our public system, and a profound ideological shift away from education as a public good that serves us all. It is now a private right. 


The traditional separation of church and state is gone, and the fundamental expectation that accountability to taxpayers is a prerequisite for public funding now only applies to our public schools. 




Resources and Links






Click here to watch the February 24, 2022 forum cosponsored by LWVO, Are Vouchers Legal?

Click here for national research on vouchers: Public Schooling In America


Click here for analysis of privatizing education.





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