CLEVELAND — The voucher program that allows Ohio families to choose a publicly-funded private education finds itself back in the spotlight as new voices are chiming in on a lawsuit first filed in January.
Earlier this year, school districts across the state, including Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District along and Richmond Heights Local Schools, filed a suit arguing the EdChoice program violates the Ohio constitution.
In their original lawsuit, the school districts argued several points, including that the program creates an unfair advantage for private schools and increases segregation.
Sarah Wiley serves as an attorney at Community Legal Aid, one of the newest advocacy and legal groups to chime in and file a brief in support of the lawsuit, alongside more than 100 school districts.
“They're facing direct harm as they're seeing money leaving their schools, going to private schools and schools are now able to provide fewer services and less quality as a result,” she said. “The EdChoice voucher program makes that problem worse and it leads to our already underfunded schools with even less money to work with.”
Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, The Legal Aid Society of Columbus, The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc., Legal Aid of Western Ohio Inc., Disability Rights Ohio, Ohio Poverty Law Center, as well as the League of Women Voters of Ohio also took part in filing statements for the court.
Since 2005, EdChoice has allowed students who would attend so-called “low-performing” public schools to take thousands of dollars of taxpayer money and apply those funds toward private school, moving them away from public schools.
At Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, court paperwork shows 1,800 students took advantage of EdChoice, amounting to $11 million worth of vouchers.
“We’re working to protect the tax dollars for the community who earned them,” Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District board member Dan Heintz said.
Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted served as Ohio House speaker when EdChoice first passed. Husted, who disclosed that his children attend public school, described how he’s seen the program grow from a goal of 4,000 in 2005 to now more than 50,000 from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“There are always circumstances where maybe the school can't serve the needs of the students,” he said. “The question is, why did these entities want to take these opportunities away from these children? This is America. We believe in choice. These families shouldn't be denied the opportunity to exercise a choice about where they send their children to school.”
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost recently filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit; a Franklin County judge still needs to make a ruling on the motion.
A spokesperson for Yost declined to speak on-camera, however Yost explained in his motion that the lawsuit lacks legal ground to proceed.
“Not surprisingly, Ohioans have different views - as parents, teachers, citizens and more – about how to best educate our children,” the lawsuit said. “Parents make those choices…However sincere and well-meaning plaintiffs may be in wishing to take that choice away from some parents, they are mistaken on the law.”
Students eligible for an EdChoice voucher in the upcoming school year must be in a public school that ranks in the lowest 20% in the state's "Performance Index Rankings" for the 2017-2017 and 2018-2019 school years. That amounts to 462 schools across 81 districts, which can be viewed here.
“Maybe they have better academic offerings at one of the EdChoice schools like STEM education that may not be available for them in their home school,” Husted added. “It's why it's really important that we have a variety of choices that serve the unique needs of all of the students in the state of Ohio.”