Vouchers take money from public school students
Our state legislature has set up several programs that divert public school dollars to nonpublic entities. Most people believe that charter schools siphon public dollars away from local school districts. Not so widely known, however, is another state program, known as EdChoice, which gives families tuition subsidies for private and parochial schools. The state also created the Jon Peterson Scholarship, a voucher for students with special needs, as well as another voucher for autistic children.
The Peterson and autism vouchers enable families to request that the local public school district evaluate their children, if there is a special need suspected. If a child is identified with such a need, then the district’s professional staff writes an individual education plan (IEP). The money lost to public schools per student can be as high as $27,000 per year, based on the identified special need and the cost of professional staff required for this work. Once the voucher is awarded, parents can use private schools to provide the services the child needs.
Looking at only the Peterson scholarships, CH-UH, with around 5,200 students, is the smallest of five districts (out of more than 600 in the state) that has more than 100 students using these vouchers. Columbus, with more than 50,000 students, has only 99 students receiving these vouchers; Cincinnati, with a population of around 36,00, has 297 scholarship students receiving them. Interestingly, with 17.5 percent of CH-UH students identified with special needs last year, our district already serves a special needs population that is greater than that of most of the public school districts in the state.
The state limits Peterson vouchers to no more than 5 percent of the identified special education population. If that limit were applied locally, then CH-UH would be limited to only 46 scholarships per year, less than half of our current number. Although still wrong-headed, this would provide some protection against an overwhelming burden on our district. Around 100 Peterson vouchers added to 136 autism vouchers creates a huge financial burden for our district.
Although special education law is extremely complicated, it is meant to protect children and ensure that they get the services they need. Often, however, private service providers game the system, enabling parents to demand a special needs identification with a higher dollar value, rather than one that addresses their children’s actual needs.
Another concern is that when parents sign up to receive services from these state-approved providers, they lose certain protections afforded them by federal law. Parents are waiving their right to appeal and to demand accountability from the provider.
Once our district professionals write the IEP, we have no jurisdiction on how or if the services are provided. If a provider tells a parent that the voucher dollars were used up in November and their child will not receive services for the rest of the year, there is no recourse. What’s even worse is that the voucher service providers are not required to be licensed.
The state of Ohio, specifically the governor and general assembly, do not understand the financial impact that the vouchers and scholarships have on public school districts. When funds are taken out of our state allotment, our own students suffer—they receive fewer services, and our district is forced to seek new money through levies.
The current financial impact on the CH-UH treasurer’s five-year forecast shows Community Schools, or charters, receiving $2.45 million, EdChoice $3.22 million, and Peterson/autism $2.65 million.
As parents and taxpayers, we must make sure the law changes to help make public school districts self-sustaining. Bad legislation at the state level puts a tremendous burden on our schools and on us. Rigging the rules to defund public schools pits neighbor against neighbor. We must elect a governor and legislators who will level the playing field and counteract the privatization agenda.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.