DeRolph case attorney: Stop killing public schools

February 5, 2020 12:15 am

Stock photo from Getty Images.

Our forefathers had a couple of good ideas that have, sadly, fallen by the wayside lately. One of the most important of those was that church and state should be separated. It was so important that it was included in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Many of our nation’s founders had come from countries where religious persecution was a common practice and they were dead set against letting it happen here. Thus, the Constitution included a wall between church and state. But lately, the keepers of that wall are failing us, and the wall is crumbling.

The second good idea was the notion that all children should have access to public education provided by the state. We find that idea included in each state constitution, and from it public schools have come into play in every state.

Imagine a classroom where children learn from, and share ideas with children of other races, nationalities and economic circumstances. They all learn together, and some of the lessons from the diversity of the classmates are as meaningful as the reading and writing. But, that value is also crumbling.

At the core of both of these problems is the notion that any child should be able to attend school anywhere the parent wishes, and the state will pay for it — with tax dollars. “School Choice,” it’s called, and in Ohio it takes two forms: charter schools, which are mostly privately run, for-profit schools that generally don’t perform nearly as well as their public school counterparts, and religious schools.

It used to be that parents who wanted to send their children to religious schools paid tuition. But now, thanks to a fiction invented by school choice advocates and bought into by the courts, they think that the state should pay — and of course, pay with your and my tax dollars.

“School Vouchers,” they call it. A ticket to attend any religious school paid for by a state backed voucher payment. Here’s where the fiction comes in. Let’s take a Catholic school for example. If the state wrote a check to St. Patrick School for a student to attend, it would risk violating that church/state wall.

So, here comes the fiction: the state would have you believe that it’s simply giving the money to the parents and, at their request, transferring the funds to the Catholic school. Bingo. No problem, since the money “came from” the parents, not the state.

The same is true in the case of vouchers for students attending fundamental Christian, Jewish and Muslim schools. But, we all know better. Vouchers are state dollars paid to religious schools. The wall that was intended to avoid just that result is being ignored by the very people responsible for protecting it.

Since parents are the prime decision-makers about where their children attend school, let’s look at the consequences of the decisions we are now enabling — with state tax dollars.

First, the students in charter schools generally get a far inferior education than their counterparts who attend public schools. Statistics shows that a high percentage of charter school graduates require remedial courses in order to be able to attend college. Many charter schools fail most other performance measures as well.

I don’t think these parents intend to make bad choices for their children; they simply fall for the slick TV advertising which, by the way, is also paid for with your tax dollars. Likewise, the parents who choose to send their children to religious school find the choices much easier when the bulk of the tab is paid for by someone else. Although those parents mean well, there are adverse consequences from those choices.

First, we need to remember that “school choice” is paid for in Ohio by taking money from public schools and giving it to either charter schools or to religious schools in the form of vouchers. When we take money away from already underfunded public schools, we lessen the opportunities for those students left attending the public schools.

As a consequence, my grandson’s public school gets less operating money from the state each time a student leaves to enroll in a charter school or a voucher-supported religious school. Amazingly, the amount of money lost by public schools through this process often exceeds the amount they received from the state before the departing student left.

While the funding is important, the far greater loss is reflected in the overall education level of our Ohio population and the consequences of its decline. Many have described the goal of public education as preparing our next generation of citizens to serve as informed voters and knowledgeable jurors when called upon.

Yet politicians spend enormous sums of money on ads designed to sell elections the same way soap and cars are sold, with little attention to where the candidates actually stand on important issues. Why? Because so many of us are either unwilling or unable to fully understand those issues. That can, and has sometimes led to bad choices.

Likewise, jury trials in complicated cases become crap games, won not by the merits of the case, but by the slickest (or most emotional) presentation. Why? Because, again, many of the jurors are unable to comprehend the technical issues in the case, and decide based on emotion rather than facts.

Lest you think this is only a vote and jury problem, consider that the decline of our education system permeates every aspect of our society, and we pay for it, in many ways, including the loss of personal earning capacity, increased welfare and social service costs and the costs of running an ever-expanding prison system. Our tax dollars would be far better spent fixing the problems of our public schools than being wasted on unproductive school choice funding.

If these circumstances have you concerned, as they do me, then let your views be known to those legislators passing these ill-considered, education-killing charter school and voucher laws.

The Ohio Constitution imposes the specific obligation on the General Assembly to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public schools for Ohio’s children.

There is no such Ohio Constitutional requirement to provide or fund charter schools or vouchers. Let’s get back to the wisdom of our forefathers and fix public education, while we still can.

This commentary was originally published by the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding.

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Nicholas Pittner
Nicholas Pittner

Nicholas Pittner is an education law attorney in Columbus. Pittner has served as the trial counsel for numerous precedent-making cases involving education law at the state- and federal-court level, including the constitutionality of Ohio’s school funding laws in DeRolph v. State of Ohio.