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Schools lawsuit: Ohio pupil voucher system unconstitutional

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Posted at 12:26 PM, Jan 04, 2022

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s 25-year-old school voucher plan is creating an unconstitutional system of separately funded private education and leading to resegregation of some districts as nonminority students mostly take advantage of the program, according to a lawsuit challenging the system.

The EdChoice Program is depleting state funding meant to help struggling districts, and in many cases provides more money in voucher scholarships to districts than they receive in state assistance, said the lawsuit filed Monday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

In turn, many of the private schools attended by voucher students aren’t subject to state regulation and, unlike public schools, can base attendance on students’ intellectual capacity, athletic skills or religious faith, the lawsuit said.

The Ohio Constitution calls for a system of common schools, with standards and resources for all Ohioans, said Eric Brown, a member of the Columbus school board and a former Democratic chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.

“Funding schools that aren’t for everybody is not the business of the Ohio General Assembly, and it is not the responsibility of Ohio taxpayers to pay for these private schools,” Brown said Tuesday.

About 100 districts, part of the Vouchers Hurt Ohio coalition, have joined the lawsuit to date.

Voucher proponents called the complaint an attack on parental choice, and noted the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s initial version of vouchers in 2002.

“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 for Senate President Matt Huffman, leader of the GOP-majority Senate.

“Parents chose these schools for a reason, and it is because they believe they give their children the best chance to flourish as a student,” Troy McIntosh, Executive Director of the Ohio Christian Education Network, said in a statement.

A message was left with the state Education Department seeking comment.

More than 60,000 children participate in the voucher program, which began in 1996 when it was made available for pupils in Cleveland city schools. Ohio has more than 1.7 million schoolchildren.

Enrollment at Richmond Heights city schools in suburban Cleveland consisted of about 26% white students and 74% students of color before the EdChoice Program was expanded in 2005, the lawsuit said. By contrast, just 3% of Richmond Heights’ students are white today, even though four of every 10 city residents are white.

Meanwhile, while the district receives $287,000 in state funding for its 700 students, the state is paying more than $675,000 for about 100 EdChoice students in the district, according to the lawsuit.

“The private school voucher program is resegregating our schools, and that is unfair, unlawful and unconstitutional,” said Nneka Jackson, a Richmond Heights school board member.

Parents of white students are typically more capable of closing the gap between an EdChoice voucher amount and a private school’s total tuition than parents of minority students, making it harder for children of color to access the program, the lawsuit said.

The state budget approved by lawmakers last year increased the maximum amount for vouchers to attend private schools from $4,650 to $5,500 for children in grades K-8 and from $6,000 to $7,500 for high school students.

Private schools will receive about $250 million in voucher payments this year, siphoning off money desperately needed by already underfunded schools, said William Phillis, executive director of the Coalition of Equity & Advocacy of School Funding.

His group’s 1991 lawsuit led to several court rulings declaring as unconstitutional Ohio’s system at the time of school funding.