Using tax-funded vouchers to send some Ohio children to private schools always has had detractors. Even the biggest supporters of the idea, however, surely can agree that Ohio’s voucher program badly needs some changes.
Vouchers are meant to be a lifeline to kids who otherwise would be stuck in a bad situation because their local public schools are failing and they can’t afford private-school tuition. Vouchers aren’t supposed to provide a windfall for private schools, but that appears increasingly to be the case.
Lawmakers should consider the list of changes recommended recently by a consortium of public school groups including administrators, treasurers and school boards. The Ohio Board of Education reviewed the list last week and endorsed only two of nine, but more of them deserve consideration.
The biggest problem currently is that eligibility rules for vouchers have been loosened to the point that the number of Ohio students who can request them has ballooned, along with the amount of tax money ending up at private instead of public schools.
In the fall of 2018, 40 of Ohio’s 608 districts had voucher-eligible schools. Next fall, when the new formula will kick in fully, the state expects around 400 districts to have schools that qualify.
Already this year, students assigned to schools most people would agree are of high quality can get tax-funded vouchers for private schools.
Making matters worse, another rule change in the latest state budget makes vouchers available to people who already are paying for private schools. Previously, only those trying private schools for the first time — who likely couldn’t afford them otherwise — were eligible.
Some public schools now are seeing their state aid diverted to pay private-school tuition for families who long have been paying their own. The Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District saw applications for high school vouchers increase nearly fivefold — not because more students are going to private schools, but because those who already are doing so are taking advantage of loose voucher eligibility.
According to Stephen Dyer, a former state legislator now with the left-leaning policy group Innovation Ohio, the changes mean Ohio taxpayers will spend more than $330 million funding vouchers this school year, up by $47 million from the year before.
We agree with the public school group and the state school board that lawmakers should reverse the recent provision allowing families to use vouchers even if they have been opting out of public schools for years.
But we also endorse some of the school group’s suggestions that the state board declined to recommend. Eligibility standards should be tightened so that schools should be more clearly deficient for their students to qualify for vouchers. No building with an overall grade of A, B or C should be subject to vouchers.
Alternatively, a better solution might be for all of Ohio’s school vouchers to be based on family income rather than the perceived failure of a given public school. The concept of vouchers always has been to level the playing field so that low-income families have choices similar to those of higher-income families.
Ohio’s school report-card system remains a work in progress; fair and valid ratings are hard to devise. Basing vouchers on income could be a surer way to direct funds where they can do the most good.
— The Columbus Dispatch