State budget proposal for K-12 education: some double dealing afoot.
Typically, state executive budget proposals have something for everyone. In the case of K-12 funding in the current state budget proposal, there are vast increases for privatized school programs (charter schools and vouchers) and a mere statement of support for the Cupp/Patterson Fair Funding program.
Conflicting data regarding the cost of the expanded eligibility for vouchers is being reported.
The budget increases announced for private education entities whets the appetite of the privatizers and whips up frenzy within the privatization lobby. Routinely, the privatization lobby receives more than what most budget proposals call for.
The attached February 14 Columbus Dispatch article raises a lot of questions about the budget numbers.
Will the legislature increase the total appropriation for K-12 education? Will Cupp/Patterson be fully funded?
Does Ohio’s budget underestimate the cost of expanding school vouchers?
Anna Staver
The Columbus Dispatch
Published: 10:04 PM February 13, 2023 | Updated 9:21 AM February 14, 2023
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine wants to spend more taxpayer dollars on public schools, charter schools and private schools. But what that all totals up to depends on who you ask.
For example, DeWine’s Office of Budget and Management says expanding the EdChoice Scholarship program (vouchers) to families at 400% of federal poverty would cost about $25 million per year. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Commission says that annual number could hit $172 million.
“Obviously, it’s a pretty massive difference,” Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro said. And the risks of being that wrong are significant.
Underestimating the cost of one program could force the state to pull money from other priorities or limit how many students could participate. Ohio can’t run up debt like the federal government. State law requires a balanced budget, and that means cost projections need to be accurate.
Estimating behavior
The challenge with EdChoice Scholarships is that Ohio parents have a multitude of reasons for choosing public or private schools and trying to predict how they will behave is part art, part science.
Moving to 400% of federal poverty as the income cap for a school voucher would mean that about 80% of all Ohio children would technically qualify. But no one interviewed by the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau thinks that’s a plausible number.
Many families love their public schools and existing private schools don’t have the capacity to accommodate a million children.
The Ohio Department of Education estimated it would award an additional 5,625 scholarships each year if the governor’s proposal becomes law.
Neither ODE nor the governor’s office responded to requests for information on how they reached that number. But a competing LSC analysis obtained by the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau delved into greater detail.
It estimated 6,420 public school students would transfer to private schools at a cost of $37 million per year. However, the total budget impact would be $5.7 million.
If that seems strange, it’s because the money Ohio sends public schools varies from district to district. In some cases, a voucher costs less than what the state pays a public school.
LSC anticipated that all additional costs would come from existing private school children.
About 30,000 current nonpublic students would be eligible under DeWine’s proposal. If they all applied for scholarships, it would cost Ohio $178 million per year.
“What is the rationale for going this high or even proposing this,” Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio, D-Lawewood, said. “The original income vouchers were to give families in need the opportunity to send their children to private schools. Now, we are saying take taxpayer dollars and give them to families who can already afford to send their children to private schools.”
It’s a tax subsidy, in her opinion, not a scholarship.
DeWine disagreed.
In an editorial board meeting with USA TODAY Network Ohio newspapers, the governor said, he wants both lower and middle-income families to have school choice.
“We made the decision that we want to give more families this option,” DeWine said.
Choosing an estimate
Determining how many existing private school families will take an EdChoice scholarship isn’t as simple as it sounds. Some families may have ideological reasons for rejecting state dollars while other may not know they’re eligible.
Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, is helping to write the House’s version of the budget and said that at first glance perhaps 33% or even 50% uptake by nonpublic students might make sense over the next two years.
“If there is $178 million to get, it would incentivize the private schools to get that,” she said.
Sweeney wants more details from the governor’s office on how they arrived at their $25 million number and so did DiMauro.
“It’s hard to imagine many families that currently have their kids in private schools turning down free money …,” DiMauro said. “I would be more inclined to believe what LSC has determined, recognizing, of course, that there is no way to predict for certain what the cost is going to be.”
Public education estimates
EdChoice isn’t the only part of the governor’s budget giving lawmakers pause. Both Republicans and Democrats have questions about the accuracy of the K-12 public education budget.
“The basis of the Cupp-Patterson formula is: Are we paying for the actual cost of K-12 education,” Finance Committee Chair Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, said.
That’s why the last budget had what were called categorical studies, which were supposed to determine the “true cost” of educating different categories of students like English language learners, gifted kids and children with disabilities.
DeWine’s budget didn’t use those estimates or the updated teacher salary data – potentially adding hundreds of millions to the cost of public education.
It’s something that Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, told reporters he’s been worried about since Ohio implemented its new school funding formula in 2021.
But Sweeney said those increases are critical to keeping the new formula relevant.
Freezing teacher salary calculations or ESL costs from one budget to the next might not have a huge impact, but doing that budget after budget would compound until “none of the inputs were tethered to actual costs.”
“We need solid information on what things cost,” she said. “Then, we can have discussions on whether we want to actually fund it.”
Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
Learn more about the EdChoice voucher litigation