School district coalition files lawsuit challenging Ohio’s private school voucher program

By: - January 5, 2022 1:00 am

Dan Heintz, board member for Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, speaks on a lawsuit filed on behalf of his and other public school districts accusing the state of unfairly funding the EdChoice private school voucher program. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. (Photo by Susan Tebben, OCJ)

A group of school districts in Ohio are suing the state, saying the way in which private schools are funded is unequal and unconstitutional.

The public education advocacy group Vouchers Hurt Ohio announced the lawsuit Tuesday morning in a press conference. The court challenge, filed the same day in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, specifically targets the EdChoice private school voucher program, saying that program has grown disproportionately, while the public school system was left to flounder with less and less resources.

Represented in the lawsuit are the Columbus City School District, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, the Richmond Heights Local School District, the Lima City School District, the Barberton City School District, two Cleveland Heights parents and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, a regular participant in education funding lawsuits.

The coalition was the leader in the major lawsuits of the last 30 years against the state in DeRolph v. State of Ohio. In the voucher lawsuit, coalition executive director William Phillis said 100 school districts are on board with the lawsuit as members of the coalition.

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.

Along with creating a separation for residents of some school districts, Cleveland Heights University Heights Local Schools says it is seeing the voucher program take students who weren’t even a part of the school system in the first place, according to board of education member Dan Heintz.

“Our taxpayers deserve to see that we are responsible stewards of their tax dollars,” Heintz said. “This lawsuit is part of that stewardship.”

School board members supporting the lawsuit said the recent passage of an abbreviated version of the Fair School Funding program, isn’t enough and stops short of its original aims to equitably fund state education.

Under the newest budget passed last year, EdChoice payments are $5,500 for K-8 students and $7,500 per student for high schoolers. Under the funding plan rolled into the state budget, public school districts will have their aid calculated on a district-by-district basis, something the Ohio Department of Education is still working on. When the budget was set to be passed, the average per-pupil base cost for education was calculated at $7,202.

Legislative leaders at the time, including Senate President Matt Huffman, said they couldn’t pass funding approvals past the two-year term of the General Assembly because it was impossible to predict the state’s financial situation, and would be inappropriately making decisions for future general assemblies.

Vouchers Hurt Ohio is not attempting to revisit rulings in DeRolph v. Ohio, rulings by the Ohio Supreme Court three decades ago which said the state did not fund education thoroughly or equally throughout the state.

Instead, they say they want to address an issue that the court hasn’t touched upon: whether the way in which funding has been diverted to private schools is constitutional.

“For the first time in Ohio, the legislature has done what it refused to do back in the days of the DeRolph litigation, which is to specify what they really think it would take to properly fund the school system, and then they didn’t fund it,” said Mark Wallach, the Cleveland-based attorney representing the groups in the lawsuits.

The lawsuit charges the state with constitutional violations of the state’s version of federal equal protection laws, and also multiple violations of the specific article of the constitutional dealing with education funding. Article VI, Section 2 of the state constitution dictates to the state regulations on creating a “thorough and efficient system of common schools,” which the lawsuit states implies one statewide system, not multiple.

“By underfunding public schools in favor of subsidizing private school education, the General Assembly, State Board of Education and the Ohio Department of Education have created an incomplete and inefficient system of schools whereby public schools struggle to provide adequate educational programming and staffing to their students while private schools expand, build and grow,” the lawsuit states.

Before the group even finished their announcement of the lawsuit, criticism was levied against the lawsuit by opposition groups.

The Center for Christian Virtue, a religious education lobby, decried the bill as an anti-school choice maneuver that would negatively impact students and parents.

“The ‘one-size-fits-all’ model works for the educational establishment, but not for Ohio’s students,” said Troy McIntosh, Executive Director of the Ohio Christian Education Network, in a statement from CCV. “Parents chose these (private) schools for a reason, and it is because they believe they give their children the best chance to flourish as a student.”

CCV is also a supporter of the so-called “backpack bill,” which proposes tying education funding to the individual student, rather than allotting money to school districts.

But the coalition filing the lawsuit said wanting public school funding to be changed does not preclude parents from choosing the school of their choice, but in fact gives them more choice in the matter.

“We didn’t just happen to stay, we chose to stay (in public schools),” Jackson said. “…What about that choice? Public education is a viable choice still, today, in Ohio.”

Coalition members say they expect more school districts to sign on to the lawsuit now that it’s been publicly filed.

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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 Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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