WELLSTON — Wellston City Schools has signed on to a coalition bringing a lawsuit against the state of Ohio for the EdChoice private school voucher program, which the coalition says perpetuates segregation and unfairly funds private schools.
This lawsuit accuses the state of setting up an unconstitutional way of funding private schools. It charges the state with violating equal protection laws, and creating two systems of schools by funding public and private education disproportionately.
The Ohio Constitution says it is the job of the state to create a “thorough and efficient system of common schools.” The lawsuit claims that this means a single system, not multiple, and that the way Ohio is currently funding schools disproportionately helps private schools, which leaves the public education system struggling.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, EdChoice provides students from certain public schools with funding to attend participating private schools.
The coalition leading the school districts in this fight is Vouchers Hurt Ohio. The lawsuit represents five school districts and the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which regularly participates in education funding lawsuits.
“We are building a broad coalition to bring our argument before the Ohio Supreme Court and reign in the out-of-control voucher program that’s hurting our kids, our schools, parents, educators, businesses, our communities and all of us,” Vouchers Hurt Ohio says on its website.
As of May 3, 112 school districts had joined the coalition.
The U.S. The Supreme Court heard the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) in which it ruled that Ohio’s voucher program was not unconstitutional. This case asked the court to consider if the state could fund religious institutions through a voucher program.
Zelman created a test to determine whether or not state funding to go to religious schools. One of the prongs of this test says that funding can go to religious schools, as long as there are adequate non-religious options.
The current case asks the court to consider whether or not the voucher program is creating two systems of education, one of which, the public school system, is not adequate.
The Institute for Justice (IJ)defended the voucher program in Zelman and it plans to defend the EdChoice programs as well.
“Ohio’s scholarship programs are constitutional, and IJ is ready to defend them in court,” IJ Attorney Keith Neely said in a press release. “This lawsuit is a desperate attempt to force Ohio families to choose between keeping their kids in failing schools or going into debt to ensure their children have a decent education.”
Until 2021, Ohio had been using a system to fund schools that was deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court in the case of DeRolph v. State of Ohio (1996) because it did not offer a pathway to equitable education throughout the state. This was largely because property taxes were the main factor when deciding how much money a school district received.
For about five years, a group of legislators began working on revising school funding, because they knew it was a complicated problem that would require a solution that could not be created in just a few months.
Due to guidelines outlined by the Ohio Constitution, legislators must pass a balanced budget. This requires them to figure out how they plan to pay for this new education funding before it can be passed. The entire budgeting process lasts about six months.
The Fair School Funding Formula was created and implemented into the state budget passed in 2021, House Bill 1.
The previous funding formula said it cost $6,000 a year to educate a student, but no school got this full amount. The Fair School Funding Formula takes the average cost of many different aspects of education into account, including teacher and administrator salaries and transportation, and determined that it costs about $7,200 to educate a student in Ohio.
“I am often asked if I believe that this funding formula meets the definition of equitable and adequate as defined in the DeRolph case so many years ago. I admit that no funding formula is going to be perfect, but I believe that this one is the outcome of practitioners working collaboratively and thoughtfully to create a formula that can handle the test of time,” Thomas Perkins, Superintendent of Northern Local Schools, said in testimony on H.B. 1.
Representatives of Wellston signed onto this testimony, as well as 76 other school districts in Southeastern Ohio.