Ohio Senate Republicans working to dismantle public education in favor of private, religious schools

June 13, 2023 4:30 am

Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, oversees the Senate session on Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

The explosive drama of a crooked ex-president being booked as a federal criminal defendant should not distract Ohio voters from what the scoundrels at the Statehouse are plotting to pass by the end of this month. We’re talking a major blow to public education, an existential threat to the schools that educate 90% of our kids.

That’s not hyperbole. That’s happening. Right under our noses. Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman has made no secret of his intentions to undermine, not strengthen Ohio’s public education system. The Lima Republican has long carried the banner for private education and for keeping Catholic schools thriving on the public dime. 

Now the ardent champion of the school privatization movement is going for broke. The GOP Senate budget proposal is his personal vehicle to bulldoze traditional school districts with a bundle of the most extreme anti-public education measures yet. Expect this legislative kingpin — who masterminded lawless redistricting maps to rig super-sized Republican majorities in the General Assembly — to call in his chits during budget negotiations. 

If arm-twisting works, Huffman’s mission to ultimately defund and destroy public education in the state (by aggressively privatizing education with public dollars) could gallop ahead. If you thought money was tight in your local school district before (and it was), just wait. Tapped-out property owners are about to get played. 

Pro-voucher legislators are already eying a chunk of your property taxes to offset the state’s skyrocketing voucher costs for parochial school tuition. It’s just a matter of time. Meanwhile, Huffman is orchestrating a sweeping overhaul in state education that could determine where your kid goes to school, who governs our school system, and how higher education functions.

The Senate leader (and de facto ruler of the state) aims to get his way on universal vouchers, his undemocratic takeover of the state education department (from an elected school board), and Orwellian censorship in college classrooms. 

My fellow shellshocked Ohioans, indulge the distraction of the day if you will. But understand that far more critical to our collective future in Ohio (than an irredeemable con man facing federal charges) is the con being pulled by state Senate Republicans to sabotage the education of 1.6 million students enrolled in our public schools. 

The same notorious pols in the Statehouse trying to ram minority rule down our throats under the guise of “protecting” the constitution (State Issue 1) are trying to divert $1.13 billion of our tax money to private, mostly religious schools under the guise of “school choice” (which is clearly not choice for all). 

The Senate GOP proposed taxpayer-funded tuition for any student attending private school in Ohio (such as diocesan grade schools or college prep academies) in its two-year budget bill. Ohio Republicans have been inching toward universal vouchers for years with their succession of expanded government handouts to private schools. So why not fund them outright without strings attached? 

What began over 20 years ago as a $5 million pilot project in Cleveland to rescue low-income families from “failing schools” and give their kids a better alternative, rapidly morphed into public giveaways (of hundreds of millions of dollars) to subsidize the private education of affluent families in high-achieving school districts whose kids never set foot in public schools. 

Today, roughly a quarter of the state’s education budget is divvied up among roughly 10% of Ohio students. With universal vouchers opening the public trough to well-off and even super rich families sending their darlings to private and religious schools, courtesy of taxpayers, that voucher slice of the education budget will balloon.

Something’s got to give.

Like fully funding the new, six-year public school funding system that replaced the inequitable and unconstitutional school funding structure we endured for 24 years in Ohio: The Huffman budget cuts public school funding in fiscal year 2024 and 2025 while increasing funding for vouchers over the same two years.

Like a proposed free school meals program for poor students in public schools. 

Like increasing the minimum salaries for Ohio public school teachers.

Like safety nets that feed, house, and provide health care to at least 1.7 million Ohioans living in poverty.  

The priorities of the Senate leadership are not about leveling the playing field, or treating all school districts and taxpayers fairly, based on capacity to pay. Huffman & Co. are not consumed with ensuring quality public education in the state no matter where you live or how much money you have.

Senate Republicans are not driven to build on the breakthrough Fair School Funding Plan that finally promised to remedy a dark history of denied opportunities for Ohio school kids living in the wrong zip code. The Ohio Senate budget isn’t about achieving the fairness and equity in public school funding that was so lacking in the old formula.

It’s about undercutting public education with limitless access to private school vouchers,  controlling education governance to advance school privatization, and punishing what they see as too “woke” universities.

The legislature must pass a state budget by June 30. There’s still time to fight for the anchors of our communities in urban, suburban, small town, and rural school districts.

But not if we’re distracted by shiny objects that aren’t worth squat. 



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Marilou Johanek
Marilou Johanek

Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.