COLUMBUS, Ohio — Shaker Heights Schools is the latest school district to join in on a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Education EdChoice program.
The Shaker Heights Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday to add their names to the list of nearly 130 school districts suing the state over what it is calling a "threat to all public school districts."
In their original lawsuit, the school districts argued several points, including that the program creates an unfair advantage for private schools and increases segregation.
Public schools have been fighting for a more efficient funding formula for decades now, and the current battle is against the state dipping into the public education funding pool to support private schools.
"We need every single dollar to make sure every child that is educated within Shaker has the opportunity to excel and to succeed," said Roschelle Ogbuji, a Shaker Heights parent.
The EdChoice program allows students from certain public schools to get a public-education funded voucher to attend private or charter schools.
Ogbuji is a single mom who sends one of her kids to public school and the other to private. However, she doesn’t use this system, despite qualifying for it.
"I chose to not take funding out of my public school to do that," she added.
Low-income families deserve the same choice as wealthy families to access private education, Shaker Heights community member Benjamin Altose said.
"You should have the option to send them somewhere else and not be limited to one single choice based on your inability to pay," Altose said. "You may have a school that would be assigned to you, and it may not be an environment where you wish to send your son or daughter with bad influences, [like] low graduation rates, gang violence, teen pregnancy."
But Shaker Heights parent Dan Grossman responded it isn’t the fact that the state is helping out with tuition costs, it's where the money is coming from.
"It just funnels money to the wealthy and to the private sector," Grossman said. "And it drains resources from a system that's supposed to exist for the betterment of all of us."
There are two sections of the program. EdChoice Expansion, which the state reported had 17,152 students participating in fiscal year 2021, requires income verification. Eighty-five percent of these students were below the 200% poverty rate.
Standard EdChoice, which the state reported has 33,129 student in FY 2021, does not require income verification. More than 75% of the students utilizing this program were not low-income qualified.
Of the total 50,281 students, 25,180 are low-income qualified, with 25,101 that are not. This means that half of the students utilizing taxpayer money to go to a private or charter school are not designated as "needing government assistance."
This is not to say that people who aren't in that designation don't struggle to have to pay the full price of the tuition — but it just means it is unknown if they do struggle to pay or not.
"My take away from this lawsuit, and essentially what I believe to be, the virtue signaling of the school district by making this Facebook post, is to say that they're standing in solidarity," Altose said. "They don't comment on how this impacts Shaker Heights, but says that one public school district at risk puts all public school districts at risk. And that sounds like a stance in solidarity, a stance in union solidarity."
Unions are causing the school board to be "political," he added.
"The reason that families need options is because there's systemic mismanagement of some of these public school districts that are causing the need for families to look for other alternatives," he said.
When asked what systemic mismanagement he is seeing, Altose said he didn't know the specifics.
However, he questioned how impacted Shaker schools really are since the district is considered one of the best public districts in Northeast Ohio.
About two dozen students are on vouchers, District Spokesperson Scott Stephens told News 5, but it’s difficult to track because some students have never actually attended the schools.
"They simply live in the attendance zone for a qualifying school and took a voucher to go to kindergarten," the spokesperson added. "Those students aren't 'leaving' our schools - they are simply receiving a publicly-funded voucher to attend private school."
Students exercising other options and utilizing those funds to pay for private or charter schools could be a demonstration of free market economics where families can take their business elsewhere, where they feel like they're going to be better served, Altose said.
For Ogbuki, this type of competition has only shown that there is a lack of oversight with where the money goes in private and charter schools and it helps keep the rich, rich, at the expense of typically black families.
When families pull their kids out of schools like Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, which is one of the major players in the lawsuit, those districts lose millions of dollars each year. They are already struggling because of how the funding formula works.
The Fair School Funding Plan (FSFP) was somewhat attempted to be put into place for the fiscal year 2021-22. It was supposed to change how the state delegates funding for school districts.
"Some lawmakers slipped in the poison pill of privatization, adding hundreds of millions of state dollars in both direct funding and tax credits to subsidize families sending their children to private and charter schools," arelease from Sept. 2021 by Policy Matters Ohio said."Still, it’s better than the old practice of funding charters (most of which were run by for-profit operators in 2020) and scholarships to private schools (“vouchers”) out of local district’s budgets. The FSFP put an end to that."
The major problem with the way it is written now, the organization said, is that in future years, instead of living up to the promise of the FSFP, "they’ll continue to weaken the public system by diverting increasing shares of public funding to private and for-profit entities."
Starting in the fiscal year 2021, lawmakers added hundreds of millions of state dollars in both direct funding and tax credits to subsidize families sending their children to private and charter schools. Critics, like Ohio Education Association (OEA), said this makes taxpayers pay for these for-profit schools and diverts money away from public education, which desperately needs it.
The FSFP would reduce inequities caused by the existing and typical formula, which focuses too much on local property taxes, OEA said. Public school districts use a combination of state funds, local property taxes, sometimes income taxes and federal funds.
"I believe that public funds should be in public forums, period," Ogbuji said. "End of story."