Increase in private school tuition vouchers is costing districts – and soon you

CLEVELAND, Ohio – A year ago, no students in the Parma school district used Ohio’s main tuition voucher program to attend private schools.

This year, thanks to changes in state law, 359 students are using vouchers.

For families paying tuition to send their kids to Parma-area private Catholic schools like Padua or Holy Name, a $6,000 tax-funded voucher toward tuition is a huge help.

For the district, it’s a $2.1 million hit to the budget that impacts teachers, books and supplies for its schools.

Parma isn’t alone in facing new or increased costs to help students attend private schools. Changes to state law, have more than tripled the number of districts declared part of the voucher program, from 40 in 2018-19 to 139 this school year.

Next year, the program meant to help students escape being stuck in failing schools will grow further, to more than 400 districts, which represents more than two-thirds of the districts in the state.

Even Solon, always at the top of state test score rankings, has a school considered failing and whose students are now eligible for vouchers. Next year, add a school in each of the high-scoring Brecksville-Broadview Heights and Mayfield districts.

The change has school officials protesting and gathering to find ways to seek relief.

“It’s huge,” said Barbara Shaner of the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, the organization for district treasurers. “It’s hitting districts that never thought they would have to worry about it. Now, it has multiplied the number of buildings affected. Way more districts are affected.”

The use of vouchers within school districts is also increasing. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools saw 500 more students use vouchers this year than last year, mostly to attend Jewish schools. The district’s voucher bill increased by $3 million.

That change, said district Treasurer Scott Gainer, has the school board seeking a higher tax increase than planned this spring.

Shaker Heights Superintendent David Glasner, whose district is seeing a small bill this year, but faces a larger one next year, complained to the state school board last week about the hit that school district budgets are taking.

“There are school districts that are now expecting to lose millions of dollars in the course of one year as a result of the EdChoice [voucher] expansion,” Glasner said. “These are losses for which districts were unable to forecast or prepare.”

State Sen. Matt Huffman, one of the strongest supporters of vouchers in Ohio, said some of the rules are subtle and have changed a few times. But districts should have known, he said, and should be blaming themselves for not improving their schools.

How vouchers work

Ohio has four “scholarship” or voucher programs that provide tax dollars to pay tuition at private schools, almost all of which are Christian schools. There is one program just for Cleveland, which was started in 1996, so Cleveland is not affected by the current changes.

The biggest is called EdChoice. Created in 2005 for students attending “underperforming” schools or who would be assigned to them, EdChoice has a student’s home district pay $4,650 toward tuition for kindergarten through eighth grade and $6,000 for private high schools.

This is the program at issue now, not to be confused with 2013’s EdChoice Expansion, which added state-funded vouchers for low-income students.

A few issues are fueling districts’ complaints: The use of schools’ old state report card grades to determine which students can use vouchers, paying more for vouchers even as state aid to schools is frozen, and, a surprise this year, when students in eligible areas can start using the vouchers.

The rules for determining which public schools are designated as “underperforming” so students can use the vouchers are complicated. When Glasner raised the issue at the state school board, even board members and State Sen. Peggy Lehner, chair of the state’s Senate Education Committee, were not clear on which laws in particular are creating most of the controversy or how to resolve them.

“I’m still trying to find out what we’re fixing,” Lehner said at that meeting.

State report card changes add to dispute

Because of state testing changes in recent years, schools are being declared EdChoice schools because of bad grades on state report card grades from five or more years ago, even though those grades have since improved.

Here’s how:

Schools are declared “underperforming” using report card grades in several measures like performance, value-added, graduation rate and Improving at-risk K-3 readers. Each measure has different grades that trigger EdChoice designation, many of which involve poor grades on two out of the last three report cards.

Because the state changed its tests and report cards a few years ago, the legislature declared a “safe harbor” that blocked report cards in 2015, 2016 and 2017 from being used.

But when report card grades in 2018 started counting toward EdChoice designations, the “two out of three” criteria reached back before safe harbor and counted previous grades from 2013 and 2014.

That meant that Cleveland Heights-University Heights High School, which had poor graduation rate grades in 2013 and 2014 but had raised them over time, was still made an EdChoice school and students could use the vouchers.

Glasner and Parma Superintendent Charles Smialek said 2013-14 grades have made some of their schools part of the voucher program. Smialek said some formerly D grades are now Cs or Bs, but the schools are still voucher-eligible schools.

“I think the state’s sending extremely mixed messages,” Smialek said. “On the one hand they’re talking about a B and that’s obviously a positive, but we’re also on a list that’s supposed to be a lifeboat for kids in failing schools. They’re completely contradictory in their two messages.”

Timing matters

There’s also confusion about which students who would normally attend these “underperforming” district schools can use vouchers at which times.

Old rules strictly limited when students could use the vouchers. But the state relaxed those rules this year, a year earlier than districts expected, so a flood of high school students started receiving them this year.

“We just lost an additional $2.1 million for high school vouchers that we never anticipated, because of this scenario,” Gainer said. “We have students who weren’t coming here and were never going to come here taking dollars.”

The district, Gainer said, can’t cut its costs to compensate for those students because they were never at the district and the schools never hired teachers or bought books to teach them. Because they were always at private schools, they were never part of planning, but are now a cost the district faces.

Those new students hit budgets extra hard because of another quirk in voucher funding that has districts paying the full amount out of local property taxes.

Districts usually receive some state aid for students that use vouchers, even if it is less than what the district has to pay. But when students have never been in the district and never counted toward state aid calculations, Gainer said, there’s no state aid for them to help offset voucher costs.

Local property taxes, Gainer said, are essentially paying for the full $6,000 for most of the new high school vouchers. That has several districts where the same issue is occurring concerned that voters won’t pass school taxes they believe just pay for kids to go to private schools.

Adding to the budget pain: The state froze aid to every district this year in the state budget, so added voucher costs just bite further into budgets.

Glasner proposed to the state board several ways to reduce the impact to districts, including capping the number of students that can use vouchers and having the state pay the voucher amount.

Shaker Heights Superintendent David Glasner

Huffman said he thinks some changes may be warranted. If a school that has strong performance overall has an issue with one report card measure, he said, that school might not be a troubled school. Clarity in rules also matters, he said, so that schools know what standards to meet to avoid consequences.

At the same time, he said he considers some private schools a bargain, compared to districts that spend much more than the cost of a voucher per student.

“The $6,000 is a better deal to the taxpayers than $12,000,” he said.