Ohio has a checkered past when it comes to constitutionally funding its public school system. The Ohio Supreme Court declared the state’s method of funding public schools in Ohio as unconstitutional four times.
In the 1997 case DeRolph v. State, the Ohio Supreme Court determined the method of funding public schools was unconstitutional and lacked “a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state as mandated by our Constitution.” Ohio public schools are funded by the state through a combination of state funds, local property taxes and federal funding according to the Ohio Department of EducationOhio Department of Education, but, according to Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, who introduced the bill alongside Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Concord, schools had leftover money during the budgeting process.
“The funding format was four different times deemed unconstitutional … because the state was funding all the other obligations and what was left over was then divvied up, depending on how many kids were going to school in the state during that time,” Sweeney said.
The court did not, however, provide specific instruction on how to develop a thorough and efficient system of common schools and instead tasked the Ohio legislature with developing a solution.
Passed in July 2021 to be enacted as part of the Ohio state budget for FY2022–FY2023, the Fair School Funding Plan, or FSFP, provides a formula for fair funding for public schools in Ohio and was developed from studies done by the Ohio Department of Education. Sweeney said they looked to find how much it cost to educate a student in the state of Ohio.
“We were just throwing money at a problem with no actual evidence to that,” Sweeney said.
Instead of trying to assign random amounts of money to fund schools, the FSFP is designed to provide funding to schools based on a calculated cost of how much money it takes to run the school and directly fund state voucher programs and charter schools, rather than rely on districts to fund students through a general allotment for each student. It also provides additional resources, such as special education and educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged students, and grants state funding for different areas of Ohio based on local property values and resident income.
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Cody Dikis reads during lunch in the band room of Alexander High School on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.
Another area of education supported by the state is Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program, an opportunity for students in underperforming districts and from lower socioeconomic statuses to attend private schools that meet the voucher program requirements with scholarships awarded by the state. Athens City schools, among other schools in Athens County, are designated as schools where students are EdChoice eligible.
Although schools are not responsible for funding EdChoice scholarship students or charter school students, which were both previously receiving money from public schools, the funding from the state through the general revenue fund for those programs expanded the maximum scholarship amount from $4,650 to $5,500 for students in grades K-8 and from $6,000 to $7,500 for students in high school, according to the state budget brief.
The expansion of the funding for the EdChoice program is the catalyst for a complaint filed Jan. 4 with the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas by The Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, in tandem with five Ohio School districts and two students against the State of Ohio, the Ohio Department of Education, the Ohio Board of Education and Stephanie Siddens, interim superintendent of public instruction at the Ohio Department of Education, against the EdChoice program.
In the complaint, those who filed argue the expanded funding for the EdChoice Voucher Program is taking away funding needed to fully implement the FSFP. This, according to the complaint, does not allow for public schools to be properly funded as required by the Ohio Constitution.
The complaint alleges that the FSFP could not be fully funded because the state chose to allocate more money to the voucher program.
“Ohio’s public school districts cannot be adequately and equitably funded as required by the Ohio Constitution under the school funding formula adopted by the Legislature due to the General Assembly’s clear interest in funding private school education instead,” the complaint said.
The complaint also said the requirements have shifted to be open to people outside of underperforming schools, while the original design of the program was meant to serve people in underperforming schools seeking a better education.
“This expansion alters the ostensible original intent of the EdChoice Program from one of providing additional educational options to students attending low-performing schools to one where the state is increasingly paying for private school education for large numbers of students, even those whose families have already demonstrated they can afford to do so themselves,” the complaint said.
Another point raised in the complaint is that private schools, which are not regulated in the same way as public schools, tend to be religious.
“This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources, creates an ‘uncommon,’ or private, system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions,” the complaint said.
The complaint also states private schools are not subject to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, which require all public meetings, including school board meetings, to be held in a manner that is open and available for the public to attend.
Athens City School District Superintendent Tom Gibbs said in an email the complaint is legitimate.
“There is nothing in the Constitution that supports the use of public funds for private schools,” Gibbs said in an email in an email. “ In fact, the Ohio Constitution requires that the State have a system that works to operate a thorough and efficient system for public schools.”
William Phillis, executive director for the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, added that the voucher program is discriminatory in who it benefits.
“Vouchers segregate people by race and economics,” —William Phillis, executive director for the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding
Phillis also said private schools are selective in who is accepted into the school, while public schools accept every student.
“The public system is required to accommodate everyone,” Phillis said. “The private schools select their students, they talk about school choice, but private schools select their kids.”
David Figlio, an Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern University, led the research of an “Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: Selection, Competition, and Performance Effects.”
This evaluation, which utilized data from 2003–2004 and 2012–2013, found that while the students participating in EdChoice are overwhelmingly low-income and minority children, “relative to pupils who are eligible for vouchers but choose not to use them, the participants in EdChoice are somewhat higher-achieving and less economically disadvantaged.”
Within the Ohio Department of Education’s reports of Scholarship Paid Participants for FY2021, only 24.2% of paid participants were low-income qualified, while 75.8% were not low-income qualified. Additionally, 43.4% of paid participants were white, 35.4% Black, 11.6% Hispanic, 7.8% multiracial and 1.7% Asian or Pacific Islander.
“Families who qualify apply to the program, and they obviously apply for a reason. The program is there to give families across Ohio options,” John Fortney, director of communications for Ohio Senate Majority Caucus, said in an email when asked about the disparities in who is benefitted.
Fortney said voucher programs allow for parents to choose where they want to send their children to school.
“This is a popular program, and as we know very well from parents whose children have no options other than to go to an unsafe or underperforming school, the scholarships provide a critical alternative for families,” Fortney said in an email.
Phillis, however, does not believe charter or private schools provide a better education than publicschools.
“When you control for the demographics, private schools don't do as well as public schools,” Phillis said. “Then when you look at the vouchers, the voucher students in general, do less well than their peers back in the public school system. So there's no evidence whatsoever that kid is better off in a private school than a public school.”
The “Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship” sought to answer whether students within the voucher program were succeeding academically in the private school they selected, which supports what Phillis said.
“EdChoice modestly improved the achievement of the public-school students who were eligible for a voucher but did not use it. The competition associated with the introduction of EdChoice appears to have spurred these public-school improvements,” the evaluation said. “The students who used vouchers to attend private schools fared worse on state exams compared to their closely matched peers remaining in public schools. Only voucher students assigned to relatively high-performing EdChoice eligible public schools could be credibly studied.”
The FSFP is operating in phases over a six-year period and did not include a study on how much it costs to educate students who are more economically disadvantaged. Sweeney said she wanted to include that study and that information, but there was not enough funding to do so. Instead, the cost was calculated on estimates based off national statistics.
“Unfortunately that was stripped out of the state budget,” Sweeney said. “I would guess the reason why they did that is because if we were to study it and we were to say that it actually needs to be 70% additional money, the state would then be tied to that given what our constitution says about providing public school students … They have to pay that money.”
Gibbs said in an email the FSFP would be the most comprehensive funding plan he has seen in his 30-year educational career, but is not fully funded in all areas it needs to be.
“The challenge is that it has not been fully funded and implemented and the portions not implemented were those most directly related to funding for programming related to poverty,” Gibbs said in an email.
It was argued that ESSER funds, which provided relief money during the COVID-19 pandemic for elementary and secondary schools in Ohio based on levels of school needs, would help make up for the lack of funding for programming related to poverty, according to Gibbs.
“This is a bit illogical given that the ESSER funds were to address issues more directly related to the negative impacts of Covid and not the general impacts of working with families living in poverty,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said in an email he is unsure if the plan will ever be fully implemented unless there is a formula firmly placed into law.
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Lockers at Alexander High School are decorated with school posters for events, elections and other teams on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.
“The other big challenge with the FSFP is that schools are reliant upon the legislature to pass a budget bill every two years that incrementally funds more of the plan,” Gibbs said in an email. “With changes in who holds seats in the House and Senate, it is possible, and some would argue probably given our State's history with school funding, that the Legislature will not follow through as members of each chamber change and priorities change over time.”
Sweeney believes what was passed will aid lawmakers in future general assemblies.
“It took three full years of making this bill and a Herculean effort of many, many people to get through,” Sweeney said. “Is there a chance that other general assemblies could undo this work? Yes, but anything could happen … What we pass hopefully should arm those individuals to be able to make those plans and hopefully have the community better understand. Then the superintendent, school boards can better plan ahead, hopefully doing less school levys on the ballot.”
Another concern Gibbs had was opportunities to provide more funding to the FSFP that did not happen.
“In the current budget the legislature chose to underfund the FSFP at the same time that they started the EdVoucher program (expansion) and at the same time they approved an income tax reduction,” Gibbs said in an email in an email. “The plan could have been more fully funded had they kept tax rates the same and used all of the funds available to prioritize public schools.”
Gibbs said in an email he is not sure how there is funding for private schools but not the FSFP through the voucher program.
“When the Fair School Funding Plan is not even fully implemented yet because there is allegedly not enough money to do so, how can there be money to send to private schools?” Gibbs said in an email.
“This is especially troublesome in that the Voucher program would provide new funding to thousands of students who had previously not been funded, creating an entire new financial liability for the State.”
There are no further updates on the status of the complaint since its filing Jan. 4.