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The fight to keep the state from funding private schools in a system court challengers say creates a “parallel” system of education, in violation of the Ohio Constitution, is ongoing, with more school districts and groups joining in.
Earlier this year, the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding and other education advocates sued the state in Franklin County Common Pleas Court for inserting more and more money into the private school voucher system known as EdChoice. School districts from across the state signed on, including the districts out of Columbus, Richmond Heights, Lima (home to both the House Speaker and Senate President), Barberton, Dayton and Toledo.
“The legislature’s expansion of the EdChoice program allowed the gradual development of a separate, non-public system of education, one that is shielded from public scrutiny while simultaneously funded by public dollars,” the school districts stated in a brief to the court.
A funding plan that was set to balance the funding of schools based on their need for funding and their ability to obtain local school levies was set to be put in place as the last General Assembly came to a close. The Fair School Funding Plan, thought up in part by the would-be House Speaker Bob Cupp, was pared down in the last budget bill.
The six-year phase-in set up in the original plan was not to be, as Senate President Matt Huffman said one legislature couldn’t sign off on spending for future legislatures.
But school districts were still on the hook for private school spending in their districts. While the new budget bill removed the requirement that individual districts use some of their state funding to offset the private school voucher program, the state opted to pay for the private school funding directly, which school districts say still takes money out of their coffers.
The Cleveland Heights-University Heights School district says the lawsuit presents issues “of significant concern” specifically to its district, along with districts throughout the state.
“Our district has lost substantial state resources to vouchers since they were first awarded in our community in 2015,” a coalition of Heights district members wrote in a brief along with the Northeast Ohio Friends of Education and Public Education Partners. “This has negated any contribution to equitable funding provided by the state’s funding system.”
In 2019 alone, the district said vouchers took $4.2 million from the district. Levies meant to stem drastic cuts failed at the ballot in 2020, so those cuts were made. The next levy campaign was successful in November of that year, but the levy amount was much less – slashed from a 7.9-mill levy to a 4.8-mill one – meaning more cuts were needed.
“The new levy generated $4.8 million,” the district wrote in their brief to the court. “The voucher bill for the first year of the levy was $8.4 million.”
The new pressure on local taxpayers “endangers the whole funding system which depends on a partnership between local communities and the state legislature,” the district wrote to the court.
Last week, nearly two dozen organizations added their names to “friends of the court” briefs, showing their support for the lawsuit’s aims at reigning in spending on private school vouchers.
The Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio AFL-CIO, AFSCME Ohio Council 8, multiple legal services and aid organizations, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, and the biggest teachers unions in the state, the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers, all entered their support for the suit.
“The impact to (AFSCME) OC8 members of an expanded EdChoice program offering limitless vouchers to parents of students attending public school to transfer to private schools is a huge economic loss affecting their continued employment with the public schools,” the AFSCME council, representing more than 4,000 employees, including districts in Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown, wrote to the court.
Leaders of the lawsuit have said they are not concerned about a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled religious schools can’t be kept from receiving public education funds.
“We are undaunted and moving full speed ahead,” said William L. Phillis, Executive Director for the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding.
The coalition says it is prepared for the lawsuit to take years to litigate, eventually ending up at the Ohio Supreme Court, just as the previous cases of school funding equality did in DeRolph, wherein the state’s highest court ruled the state was not properly funding public education as the constitution intended.
The state has asked the court to dismiss the case.
Follow OCJ Reporter Susan Tebben on Twitter.
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