School districts, let’s face it, are the giants in K–12 education. Because states traditionally awarded districts “”—a gentle way of saying monopolies—they enroll the vast majority of Ohio students. In recent weeks, media coverage has been awash with complaints from district officials who feel aggrieved by policies that expand eligibility for EdChoice, a state-funded program that provides scholarships (a.k.a vouchers) enabling students to attend private schools.
At the root of the quarrel is the prospect of increased competition, particularly in districts that have long been sheltered from such a threat. School districts, with their millions in tax support, have enjoyed a major advantage in attracting students over their tuition-based counterparts. To help level the playing field, the EdChoice program has, since 2007, offered state funded vouchers that assist predominately low- to mid-income families who would prefer a private school option. With new state rules in place, students fromare starting to become eligible.
Although EdChoice directly supports families, it does put some budgetary pressure on districts. When they serve fewer students, their state subsidies usually decline. While there is nothat student achievement suffers as a result, administrators are likely concerned about the pain that comes from downsizing. That explains the saber-rattling and their demands that the legislature roll back eligibility.
Whether Ohio should encourage a more, choice-friendly system of K–12 schools, or whether it should retain a largely monolithic system, is a worthwhile conversation. But a reasoned debate about this big-picture policy question doesn’t seem to be the goal of school officials. In their zeal to preserve the status quo, they’ve distorted some of the facts, and a few of their remarks have gone over the top. Consider a few representative statements (my colleague Jeff Murray’s news clippings have more ).
Matt Miller, superintendent for Lakota Schools, Butler County’s largest district, said the new plan overly benefits private schools at the expense of public school systems.
Miller said that “the private schools benefiting from this program are not held to the same accountability measures as our public schools, making this whole fiasco seem like nothing more than a money grab by our state legislators.”
Talawanda Schools Superintendent Ed Theroux echoed those complaints, saying that “the EdChoice voucher system is ill conceived, poorly developed and is an attack against public education.” —
Needless to say, calling EdChoice a “fiasco,” a “money grab,” “ill conceived,” and an “attack against public education” is strong rhetoric. But these allegations ignore the real intention of the program—to offer a wider range of school options to families. Remember: No one is compelling parents to avail themselves of a private-school scholarship. It’s strictly voluntary. Hence, the only channel through which EdChoice would “attack public education” is via the preferences and choices of Ohio families.
Turning to Northeast Ohio, a school official gave these comments to a local news station:
“Our families know that this is a very strong district. We have a graduation rate now exceeding 95%. Our students go to some of the outstanding colleges and universities throughout the country. They excel in music and arts and athletics and other endeavors,” Stephens said. “And that’s what brings people to Shaker Heights. We just feel that we and other districts deserve to be able to keep the funding that local taxpayers have approved for us.”
“We think that when local tax dollars are suddenly funneled to private and religious schools, and the taxpayers have no say in that whatsoever, that’s simply wrong,” Stephens said. “They want their local dollars to go to their local schools.” —
Schools tooting their own horn is about par for the course and perfectly fine. Unfortunately, the statement is misleading in two respects and, in my view, mildly offensive in a third.
First, it’s wrong to say that EdChoice is funded via local school taxes, a common misconception that districts often promote. The scholarships are entirely funded by state appropriations. No local taxes are involved. When a family decides to use a voucher, the local property tax revenue of a district remains unchanged. Why? Districts’ local tax revenue is equal to the tax base times the tax rate. Although student enrollment matters for state funding allocations, it’s not part of the local revenue equation.
Second, it’s wrong to assert that dollars are “suddenly funneled to private and religious schools” as if the state is transferring funds for no apparent reason. Again, the only way state dollars are “funneled” to private schools is through the voluntary choices of Ohio families. The funding transfer merely ensures that the school actually responsible for educating the child receives the money to do so. Meanwhile, it’s a stretch to say that “taxpayers have no say in that whatsoever.” Believe it or not, voucher-receiving families pay taxes as well.
Third, the criticism of religious schools doesn’t seem very respectful to people of faith. While religion and education is a contentious area, why suggest a hostility to religious families who might prefer a school that matches their beliefs?
The cascade of criticism leveled against EdChoice by school districts is certainly predictable. It’s in their self-interest to push back on increased competition and choice. But it’s disappointing to see public leaders take the low road when condemning private school scholarships and the opportunities they afford. Even with expanded choice, school districts are likely to remain the giants of K–12 education. But Goliaths should be wary of treating the lowly with contempt, for we all know how that story ends.