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Local districts join lawsuit challenging school vouchers

Richmond Heights is one looking for change
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Posted at 5:07 PM, Jan 04, 2022

CLEVELAND — Two local school districts joined a lawsuit filed in Franklin County on Tuesday.

Cleveland Heights-University Heights and Richmond Heights districts are with a coalition of schools asking courts to do away with the school voucher system in the state. It claims the school voucher program uses tax dollars unconstitutionally.

"Quite honestly...our backs are against the wall," Nnake Slade Jackson said about why her district is joining the lawsuit. She is the president of the Richmond Heights Board of Education. "We have watched our funding and the budget to operate our school district diminish over time."

About 50,000 students in Ohio use vouchers to attend private schools. Supporters of school vouchers said they give access to schools to families who otherwise can't afford it. Objectors point to shrinking school budgets and enrollment numbers as well as data that shows students who use the vouchers are overwhelmingly white.

"The solution is they attend the public system, or they pay for the tuition for the private school," said William Phillis with the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy. The group is one of the defendants in the lawsuit and has about 100 member schools in the state.

When students leave public school for private, the money goes with them. Slade Jackson said taxpayers in Richmond Heights stepped up over the last decade approving levies to fill the gap, but without them, "we would have not had the opportunity to educate our students with the quality we have been afforded so far."

The lawsuit argues vouchers unconstitutionally fund private schools with tax dollars.

"The timing of the lawsuit, while so many children continue to experience the educational fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak, is particularly troubling," said Troy McIntosh, the Director for the Ohio Christian Education Network, in a statement Tuesday. "They did so in spite of previously unsuccessful legal challenges and a history of case law establishing the legality of such school choice programs."

Phillis said public schools in the state have waited long enough for the funding formula to be constitutional and do what it's supposed to do for learners.

"The bottom line of all this is the public system is available to all students regardless of anything that is going on with their life," he said.

Slade Jackson said joining the legal action was one way to bring attention to the issues schools in the state are facing.

"For quite some time we felt like we were sort of in isolation," she said. "Just kind of working to raise the awareness on our own. And when we realized there was a coalition established to raise the awareness, we quickly decided to join."

Currently, Ohio has five school voucher programs. In October, House Republicans launched support for HB 290. or the "Backpack Bill." It's an effort to give all students in the state vouchers for private schools.

Across the statehouse, Senate Republicans are watching the lawsuit as well.

“This shows the deep disdain these greedy big government elitists have for parents to make decisions that are best for the education of their children," said John Fortney, a spokesperson with the majority party. "It is shameful and a direct attack on Ohio families.”

You can read the full lawsuit in a PDF here.