Unions, DeRolph case group condemn ‘backpack’ school funding

By: - May 7, 2021 12:50 am

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Ohio’s teachers unions and the organization that started a decades-long fight to change public school funding in the state are calling a new attempt to expand private school vouchers a “direct assault on the Ohio Constitution.”

The two-page bill which entered the Ohio House on Wednesday, says it is “the General Assembly’s intent” that the Ohio Revised Code be changed to “create a thorough and efficient statewide foundation funding formula for the education of all students in this state.”

Under the bill, all students, including those in community schools, STEM schools and private schools along with public school districts, would have the option for student funding “to follow them to the schools they attend.”

“This formula will ensure Ohio maintains strong funding for public and nonpublic schools while cultivating innovation and opportunity for all children,” the bill language states.

As of now, schools in the bottom 20% of the state performance index rankings and schools in a district with 20% or more low-income students are eligible.

Most recently, the list of eligible schools in the program was pushed down to 469 in November, after being in fear of ballooning to 1,200. Prior to the November changes, pandemic budget concerns led the legislature to freeze the program at 517 schools.

William Phillis, executive director for the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding criticized bill cosponsor state Rep. Riordan McClain for using West Virginia’s universal voucher system as a model, with which lawmakers in the state hope to give vouchers for homeschooling as well.

“Lawmakers are not going to stop until they completely undermine the public school system by making Ohio the wild west of unregulated and harmful private school vouchers,” Phillis said in a statement.

The OCEASF was a party in the DeRolph decisions which, starting in 1991, asked the Ohio Supreme Court to rule on whether the state’s public education system was unconstitutionally reliant on property taxes in districts. After four different reviews, the state’s highest court did rule that the state was over-reliant on property taxes, and that the system was not “thorough and efficient.”

Phillis’ group is joining a coalition called “Vouchers Hurt Ohio” on plans to sue the state “over the constitutionality of the harmful voucher program,” Phillis said in a statement.

Supporters of the universal private school voucher program say it makes sense for funding to go with the student, rather than with the district.

“Ohio lawmakers should be focusing on funding teachers and students, not buildings and bureaucrats,” Aaron Baer, of the Center for Christian Virtue, a religion-centered public policy group, said in a statement.

Ohio Education Association president Scott DiMauro says the so-called “backpack” funding model, where the funding follows the student, is a flawed premise pushed by those supporting the privatization of education.

Just as the current state education funding model doesn’t account for the specific needs of every student in every situation, a universal voucher program wouldn’t adjust to the need for diverse student funding.

“This idea that we’re going to have one pile of money, and that money goes to the kid and they take it to a private school completely disregards the fact that in our system there are inequities, and our public school system is set up to meet our needs,” DiMauro said.

The OEA says newly released data shows a strain on property taxes has continued with the EdChoice private school voucher program.

In a recent public forum on the state’s efforts to overhaul the education funding model, OEA’s government relations director, Steve Dyer, said property taxes have increased by $1.6 billion since 2003, when the final decision was made in the DeRolph case.

The OEA has also collected data through a partnership with Innovation Ohio, calling the coalition The Ohio Charter School Accountability Project, citing statistics from the Ohio Department of Education on charter school success compared with non-private and charter schools.

In partnership with Innovation Ohio, the OEA studied state data showing students taking vouchers are “nearly twice as likely to be white,” contributing to what DiMauro called “White Flight,” or a movement of white students out of communities that are predominantly made up of people of color.

With those students goes the resources and the funding, DiMauro told the OCJ on Thursday, as the private school voucher funds are deducted from school district funding.

“It amounts to state-sanctioned segregation,” DeMauro said. “And that flies in the face of Brown v. Board of Education and the work that people have been doing for decades to make equitable learning experiences for students of all backgrounds.”

The performance values aren’t sufficient enough to garner more funding either, DiMauro said, citing an investigation by the Cincinnati Enquirer that showed in 88% of Ohio cities studied, public school students performed better on state tests than private school students in the 2017-18, 2018-19 school years.

Another of Ohio’s education unions, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, maintained its disapproval of EdChoice vouchers, and said the legislature has been “derelict in meeting their constitutional responsibility” when it comes to education, present legislation included.

“The legislators who have introduced HB 290 are intentionally creating another huge obstacle toward implementing a fair school funding formula,” OFT president Melissa Cropper said Thursday. “HB 290 is not about school choice, it’s about defunding the local public schools that 90% of Ohio kids attend.”

Private school vouchers are likely to be a part of the new funding formula currently included in the biennial budget being considered by the Ohio Senate. In the current draft of the budget, EdChoice vouchers would be paid directly through the state, rather than through deductions from public school district funding.

Officials have said the Senate has no plan to change that direct-funding model, though the budget has two more months of scrutiny left before the July 1 passage deadline.



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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.