Ohio’s Education Vouchers, Part I: Why They Exist, and Whether They Should

Our nation’s public school systems pre-date the nation itself.  According to the Applied Research Center, the beginnings of our public school system began in 1647 with the words,

“The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decrees that every town of fifty families should have an elementary school and that every town of 100 families should have a Latin school. The goal is to ensure that Puritan children learn to read the Bible and receive basic information about their Calvinist religion…”

(Readers will note that this was a time when the public practice of religion was not considered a threat by lawmakers.)

Why  Ohio’s  System  for  Funding  Schools  Had  To  Be  Changed

Sixteen years ago, Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the property tax method for funding the state’s public schools.  The state’s constitution declares:  “The general assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise, as, with the income arising from the school trust fund, will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State” (Ohio Constitution, Section 2, Article VI).

On March 24, 1997, www.donet.com posted a review of the decision which struck down the use of property taxes.  Two of the justices wrote the following:

“Upon a full consideration of the record and in analyzing the pertinent constitutional provision, we can reach but one conclusion: the current legislation fails to provide for a thorough and efficient system of common schools, in violation of Section 2, Article VI of the Ohio Constitution.”  — Justice Francis E. Sweeney, Sr.

“The General Assembly must first determine the cost of a basic quality education in both primary and secondary schools in Ohio, and then ensure sufficient funds to provide each student with that education, realizing that local property taxes can no longer be the primary means of providing the finances for a thorough and efficient system of schools.”  — Justice Alice R. Resnick

Vouchers  Are  Not  a  New  Idea  in  the  U.S.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) web site lists the twelve states and the District of Columbia which currently have school vouchers laws.   While a majority of these laws have been passed since 2000, most would be astonished to learn that two states initiated early forms of these programs in the 19th century.  Although limited in scope, Vermont (1869) and Maine (1873) began their “Town Tuitioning Programs” before our nation’s first centennial!

Ohio’s  Voucher  or  “Scholarship”  Programs

1)  The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program initiative, which preceded Ohio’s statewide “EdChoice” program, began in 2005.1  Cleveland’s program provides opportunities for parents or guardians of children residing within the boundaries of the Cleveland Municipal School District, with priority to low-income families (below 200% of federal poverty guidelines). Tuition reimbursements up to $4,250 for K-8 and up to $5,000 for high school students are available from the state in order to attend private schools.  Families with students already in private schools may apply.

Parents and guardians with incomes above 200% of federal guidelines or with high school students are responsible for tuition in excess of these amounts as well as for other school fees.

For low-income families, volunteer service activities may be performed in lieu of cash payments.  Eligibility of students with special needs will depend on the admissions policies of the chartered non-public schools.2

There is no cap on the number of available scholarships according to NCSL.

2)  The Educational Choice Scholarship (EdChoice) Program currently has a limit of 60,000 scholarships and covers only those students outside of the Cleveland schools “whose neighborhood school is low performing 2 out of 3 consecutive years.”3  (This is a significant increase from the program’s first year cap of 14,000 in 2005.4)

Scholarships’ maximum values are the same amounts as those in the Cleveland system.  Private schools are prohibited from charging tuition above the value of the voucher to students with household incomes below 200% of the poverty guideline.  In addition, these schools must administer state assessments to voucher recipients.3

3)  The Autism Scholarship Program began in 2003, and the Jon Petersen Special Needs Scholarship Program started in 2011.  For these, State Board of Education approval is required for private education providers.3

Addressing  Three  Common  Arguments  Against  Ohio’s  Voucher  System

1) “It takes money away from the public schools”  –  True, vouchers divert tax revenue to non-public schools… but they also direct students away from the public schools, thus lowering their expenses!  In addition, those who are opposed to money flowing away from public schools conveniently overlook the fact that homeschooling families still pay taxes into the public school system which their children do not attend.

2) “What about the ‘separation of church and state’?”  –  This is a greatly misquoted and misunderstood American concept.  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The famous “wall of separation” comes from Thomas Jefferson’s January 1, 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, which was concerned that the legislature considered religious liberties as something granted, not inalienable.  He wrote:

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

The “wall” was described earlier by Roger Williams in his 1644 book, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, discussed, in a Conference between TRUTH and PEACE.  He used a metaphor found in the Book of Isaiah, where people of faith lived in a garden and were protected by a wall separating them from the “wilderness of the world.”

Thus, the U.S. Constitution does not say that the State shall have no dealings with Religion, only that it cannot establish an official religion or favor one or several at the expense of others.  As long as vouchers can be used at any private school regardless of religious affiliation, then the State is not showing favoritism.  This was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.5

3) “We shouldn’t abandon the public schools.” –  This quote is attributed to the Rev. Jesse Jackson in an article by Walter Williams.  Mr. Williams also noted that nationwide, “only 11 percent of all parents enroll their children in private schools.”  Yet, a 2004 Thomas B. Fordham Institute study revealed that more than 20% of public school teachers send their children to private schools.  In Philadelphia, the figure is 44%.  Cincinnati (41%), Chicago (39%) and the San Francisco-Oakland area (34%)6 suggest the same interesting question:

Does this tell us something the educators aren’t willing to admit?

UPCOMING ON OCR: Vouchers are a legitimate means to address the problem of how to fund equitable educational opportunity.  But are ours the best way?  Read the upcoming article, “Ohio Education Vouchers, Part 2:  State by State—Is There a Better Way?”

Featured-Columnist---Tony-RubioOscar A. (Tony) Rubio is a writer who merges the lessons of history with current events to suggest a better path. He resides in Cincinnati, Ohio and believes that our national mood would be improved if we listened to more Big Band and Jazz as we look forward to the White House changing occupants on January 20, 2017. Tony blogs at www.cartaremi.wordpress.com and www.sportuoso.wordpress.com.

All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.

Also by Tony Rubio: “Why Ohio Should Remain a Two-Plate State” and  “Did the Hispanic Vote Support the Wrong Party in 2012?”

Related on OCR: “Privatization: Best Form of Public Accountability”

1From the June 14, 2012 article “Why Ohio Calls School Vouchers ‘Scholarships,’” by Molly Bloom, www.stateimpact.npr.org: “Technically, Ohio doesn’t have voucher programs. It has scholarship programs: The Cleveland Scholarship Program, the Education Choice Scholarship, the Autism Scholarship Program and, starting next year, the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship.”

“That’s in part because of Akron businessman and longtime ‘school choice’ advocate David Brennan. From Cleveland State University Professor Jim Carl’s history of school vouchers:
Brennan was also insistent, when he and [Rep. Michael] Fox drafted legislation, to use the term ‘scholarship’ instead of ‘voucher.’ According to Fox, ‘When you ask, do you support vouchers, people don’t know what you’re talking about or they don’t like it… If you use the word scholarship, everyone supports scholarships.’”

2 – www.education.ohio.gov

3 – www.ncsl.org

4 – “Thousands Use Ohio EdChoice Vouchers,” by Michael Coulter, 9/1/2006, www.heartland.org.

5 – In Wikipedia, “Under the Private Choice Test developed by the court, for a voucher program to be constitutional it must meet all of the following criteria:

  • the program must have a valid secular purpose,

  • aid must go to parents and not to the schools,

  • a broad class of beneficiaries must be covered,

  • the program must be neutral with respect to religion, and

  • there must be adequate nonreligious options.

The court ruled that the Ohio program met the five-part test in that:

1) the valid secular purpose of the program was “providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system”
2) the vouchers were given to the parents
3) the “broad class” was all students enrolled in currently failing programs
4) parents who received vouchers were not required to enroll in a religious-based school
5) there were other public schools in adjoining districts, as well as non-sectarian private schools in the Cleveland area, available that would accept vouchers.”

6 – “Black leaders have spurned public schools,” by Walter E. Williams, Cincinnati Enquirer, 10/13/2013.  The article also quoted The Heritage Foundation that “exactly 52 percent of Congressional Black Caucus members… sent at least one child to private school.”