Voucher Bill Still Threatens School District Budgets

In an apparent attempt to calm the firestorm of controversy caused by his bill to expand the use of private school vouchers, State Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, held a news conference on Monday to discuss”changes” he intends to make to House Bill 136. As currently written, the bill poses the greatest threat to the viability of Ohio’s “common schools” since they became part of the Ohio Constitution in 1851.

As passed by the House Education Committee, HB 136 would allow parents earning as much as $95,000 per year to pull their children from even Ohio’s best and highest-performing public schools—and receive a voucher from the state worth up to $4,626 to enroll their kids in private schools. Worse yet, that $4,626 would be “deducted”from the money the public school district receives from the state. Because many of Ohio’s wealthiest and highest-performing districts receive substantially less than that in per pupil assistance, HB136’s private school vouchers could effectively eat up all their state aid. Other outrageous features of HB 136 include:

  • even parents whose children have never attended public schools and have always attended private schools would qualify for vouchers;
  • if the voucher amount sent to the private school exceeds the tuition at that school, the families get to “save” the excess in an “education account” that can be used for college expenses. Families with kids in public schools, of course, get no such college subsidy.
  • because students from even academically top-performing school districts can qualify, vouchers could be used by parents who simply wish to give their children a particular kind of religious instruction—and taxpayers would be forced to subsidize it.
  • perhaps most incredible of all, HB 136 contains an “automatic trigger” that would allow the number of vouchers to increase without limit. Forever. Under the bill, the number of vouchers permitted is tied to the difference between the number of vouchers available—and the number actually taken. But if the number of vouchers taken exceeds 90% of those available, HB 136 requires the Dept. of Education to expand the number by 25%. Because there is no cap or limit to this trigger, vouchers could expand without limit in perpetuity, with no further action by the Governor or vote of the General Assembly required. In short, vouchers could end up being the method of funding education in this state.

Huffman admitted that in its current form, HB 136 could create a potential “doomsday scenario” for Ohio’s public schools. He said that estimates of the bill’s cost to public schools—$500 million just to pay for students who already attend private schools, and nearly $1 billion in lost revenue once the bill was fully phased in—were “valid.”

The good news is that Huffman announced that a scaled back version of HB 136 would either be introduced as a new bill or rolled into a new education plan Gov. Kasich is expected to submit next year.

The bad news is that even this “scaled back” version would cost districts up to $76.5 million, effectively doubling the cost of private school vouchers from last year.

And many of Huffman’s proposed changes would still present public schools with massive problems.

Take his proposal to cap the amount of state money any district could lose at $4,500 per student, for example.

Under this proposal, locally raised property taxes would still be sent to private schools. Why? Because the $4,500 per pupil in state money Huffman cites is a phantom figure. Its what a district might get before “deductions” for Charter Schools, Open Enrollment, and other voucher programs. Last year, for example, the state provided public school districts with $6.5 billion—which equated to nearly $3,800 for each of the 1.75 million children in those districts. But after “deductions” for charters, vouchers, and open enrollment, that $3,800 shrunk to roughly $3,200. So if districts get $3,200 per pupil from the state—but could lost up to $4,500 per pupil for private school vouchers—they would still lose money. And that would require the schools to either cut programs or seek more funding from taxpayers through local levies.

Rep. Huffman, of course, doesn’t see it that way. He insists that his voucher program would actually “save” money for local school districts. How? Well, he says, the amount of money being transferred to private schools would be less than the amounts being transferred for Charter schools and Open Enrollment. What he somehow fails to understand is that a loss of money is a loss of money; the only difference is the size of the loss.

Rep. Huffman also sought to defend private school vouchers by complaining about the resources Open Enrollment drains from local districts. But what districts lose from Open Enrollment pales into insignficance when compared to what they lose from Charters and Vouchers. Akron public schools, for example, lost about $6 million to Open Enrollment last year. But they lost nearly $30 million to Charters and Vouchers. And unlike the money lost to Charters and Vouchers, Open Enrollment money is at least transferred to public school districts that are accountable to taxpayers.

Although it is not entirely clear whether Rep. Huffman will eliminate the automatic cap increase on EdChoice scholarships that was in his original bill, he did indicate that the number of students lost by any one district could not exceed 1 percent of its student population—which would translate into a cap on the number of private school vouchers at about 17,000 statewide. While this is a substantially larger number than the number of those currently receiving EdChoice vouchers, eliminating the “limitless cap” would be good news indeed for public school advocates.

Rep. Huffman also mentioned several other changes that would be improvements over his original bill. The eligibility family income threshhold would be reduced from $95,000 per year to about $67,000 a year for a family of four, or 300% of the poverty level. And he’s also getting rid of the private school “savings acounts” that could be used for college tuition. While unquestionably better than before, one might legitimately question whether a $67,000 income cap is justified in a state where the average family income is roughly $45, 000 per year.

At the end of the day, however, the fundamentally flawed principles that lay at the heart of HB 136 will remain intact. As Rep. Huffman himself put it: “The point of programs like this is not necessarily to say we’ll only do stuff if the local school district likes it. We’re supposed to be providing as many options for students and parents as we can and doing it at a cost to the taxpayers that’s the least. ” Almost as an after-thought he added, “But of course we want to make sure that education is appropriate.”

With all due respect to Rep. Huffman, we submit that comments like these indicate he misunderstands his duty as a legislator. It is not to ensure steady increases in private school enrollment. It is not to transfer public money to private schools, or to ask taxpayers to subsidize religious instruction. And it most assuredly is not to undermine Ohio’s system of public (or “common”) schools set forth in our Constitution.

On the contrary, it is Rep. Huffman’s constitutional duty—as set forth four separate times by the Ohio Supreme Court—to ensure a thorough and efficient system of public common schools for all Ohio’s children. That same Court also ruled four separate times that Ohio’s current school funding mechanism is unconstitutional due to its “overreliance” on the property tax. Yet Rep. Huffman’s bill does nothing to address either this problem or the gross funding inequities stemming from that overreliance. Indeed, HB 136 only promises to make our school funding problems even worse.

Of course, from Rep. Huffman’s perspective, his bill does serve a purpose. It ensures that he and his fellow Republicans can continue to rake in big campaign checks from wealthy advocates of charter and private schools. And if the end result is that our public schools, drained of both students and resources, are ultimately destroyed, well, that’s just collateral damage.