A Lawsuit Brews Over EdChoice Vouchers: They're 'Starving' Public Schools

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Vouchers Hurt Ohio allege the state's EdChoice voucher program violates the state constitution, by stripping vital funds from the public school system. [Anna Nahabed / Shutterstock]
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A coalition of about 75 Ohio public school districts plan to sue the state over its use of EdChoice private school vouchers. Organizers, who started gathering districts to sign on to the lawsuit a year ago, at the start of the pandemic, say "we'll be in court soon."

Known collectively as Vouchers Hurt Ohio, the group says the EdChoice vouchers have stripped the public school system of billions of dollars, preventing it from providing Ohio’s children with a “thorough and efficient” education as mandated by the state constitution.

It’s essentially the same constitutional argument used in the DeRolph v. Ohio lawsuit, which led to the state Supreme Court determining that the state’s school funding model was unconstitutional in 1996.

The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Advocacy of School Funding, which represented the school districts involved in DeRolph, is coordinating the efforts of the upcoming voucher case. Executive Director William Phillis said there are groups nationwide and “in Ohio’s legislature” that think “teacher unions are bad, the state retirement system for teachers is bad, it's bad public policy, and that public education is bad.”

Those influential people are taking a slow, “starve the beast” approach in their attack on public education, Phillis said, which makes it difficult for pro-public schools advocates to fight back.

“Now, if they would come out and say forthrightly, ‘We want to destroy the public school system. We want to replace the public school system,’ people would rise up and oppose that,” Phillis said. “But they're doing it little by little. They're just starving – they're just taking money, year after year, away from the public school system.” 

Cleveland law firm Walter Haverfield is preparing the litigation and while a date to file the lawsuit has not been established, Phillis said he expects to "be in court soon.” 

Currently, EdChoice vouchers are only available to students in districts the state deems failing, based on report card criteria. But Ohio Republicans are considering a plan that would establish a universal voucher program, making all students eligible.

The Senate’s version of the state’s two-year budget bill, if passed as written, would significantly increase spending on school vouchers. EdChoice voucher amounts would rise to $5,500 for K-8 students and from $6,000 to $7,500 for high school students. 

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District was the first in the state to join the lawsuit, and district officials there have long criticized EdChoice for robbing their schools of vital funds. The district loses $10 million every year and has had to cut a gamut of programs due to EdChoice payouts, said CH-UH Board member Dan Heintz. 

“We've had to make some really difficult curriculum decisions over the past few years in order to stay afloat. We have reduced some of the choices that our students have in terms of languages that are available to them. Vouchers absolutely impacted our ability to negotiate the past two contracts that our incredible teachers work under, which is heartbreaking,” Heintz said. “This is all based on test results that are notorious for underreporting the performance of poor children and minority children.

Ninety-four percent of the students that use vouchers “never attended one of our schools,” according to Heintz.

“So the narrative that families use vouchers to escape,” Heintz said. “Failing schools is false. The simple truth is that these families are not fleeing a failing school, they're fleeing a tuition bill. Period.”

Along with CH-UH Schools, Richmond Heights, Fairview Park and Bedford City schools are among the Northeast Ohio school districts that are already part of the Vouchers Hurt Ohio effort, and more are expected to join in the coming weeks.

Phillis said the lawsuit is about preserving the common good and protecting poor students from systemic discrimination.

“The legislature for years has been discriminating against the poor,” Phillis said. “We have poor districts. We have poor children in poor districts that aren't getting an equal shot, an equal educational opportunity."

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