Ohio gives $2 billion away to private schools. Do we want that for Kentucky? Skip to content

Ohio gives $2 billion away to private schools. Do we want that for Kentucky?

That giant sucking sound you hear? That is charter schools and voucher programs across the country, draining money from your public schools.

4 min read

Way back in the 1990s, the Cleveland Public Schools embarked on a new program to provide vouchers that would allow low-income and students of color to attend private schools.

Since that time, the idea of public dollars used to subsidize private school attendance skyrocketed. Today, Ohio is one of 11 states that offers what’s known as universal voucher programs, meaning they are given to all but the very richest families.

The state has also expanded its charter school program, funding it with another $1 billion a year in state funding.

But public school enrollment has remained largely static, meaning that the money for vouchers is going to families who already send children to private school, said Stephen Dyer, a former Ohio legislator and education advocate.

At the same time, he said, the percentage of the state budget going to public schools has been cut from about 40 percent in 1975 to 20 percent in 2024.

“What’s happened is the state has decided not to fully fund the education of students in public schools so they can provide huge private school tuition subsidies to wealthy Ohioans who are already sending their kids to private school,” Dyer said.

“It’s been quite an event.”

Ohio is following a school choice playbook seen in nine other states — start with small, focused voucher programs that aimed at helping low-income students. Then open the door to allow everyone to take part, which will eventually starve public schools of their funding.

It’s important for Kentuckians to realize this as they get ready to vote on Amendment 2 in November.

One of the reasons that Kentucky has been so slow to adopt school choice is that our Constitution specifically forbids it. Amendment 2’s language would change the Constitution to say: “The General Assembly may provide financial support for the education of students outside the system of common schools. The General Assembly may exercise this authority by law, Sections 59, 60, 171, 183, 184, 186, and 189 of this Constitution notwithstanding.”

Two years ago, the GOP supermajority in the General Assembly tried to issue tax credits for donating to organizations that then give scholarships to private schools. The state Supreme Court slammed that door shut because of the wisdom of our state’s founding.

The school choice people realized that to even crack the door for diverting public money, the Constitution would have to change. If Amendment 2 passes, Kentucky’s public school dollars could be divided between educational spending accounts, tax credits, vouchers and charter schools, a veritable bonanza of privatization.

The voucher bonanza

Before 2023, only families whose incomes were at or below 250% of the federal poverty level ($75,000 for a family of four) were eligible for the vouchers.

But in an investigative report from News5 out of Cleveland, reporters found that nearly $400 million was spent in 2023-2024. In the 2022-23 school year, 23,272 students got vouchers to private, mostly religious schools. In 2023-24, that number ballooned to 82,946 students.

But private school enrollment went up by just 3,700 students.

Over the next two years, Ohio lawmakers have budgeted $1 billion a year to cover the expansion.

“It’s really been kind of amazing to watch the sheer recklessness of the program,” Dyer said. In Ohio, charter schools get audited, but the money going to private schools through audits has not been examined. “That’s really troubling.”

A Washington Post investigation earlier this week found that 90 percent of private school vouchers across the country were going to religious schools. And ProPublica recently found that private schools in Ohio were urging parents to apply for vouchers to help their bottom line.

Issues over the separation of church and state are one reason that a group of Ohio education advocates are now suing the state’s EdChoice program.

But it’s not even about religious schools, so much as privatizing the whole system, said William Phillis, a former assistant superintendent at the Ohio Department of Education, who is leading the lawsuit.

“It’s so disingenuous and egregious on the part of these so-called choice people,” Phillis said. “They get their nose under the tent, their foot in the door, and they just expand the program exponentially. The end game is destroy the public school system.”

At first it’s a compelling argument to say that vouchers will help get kids out of struggling charter schools, Phillis said.

“But now it’s reverse Robin Hood, the poor people who can’t afford private education even with a voucher are subsidizing the rich” who are already in private schools.

“I would hope the people of Kentucky would not interfere with constitutional provisions you now have,” he added. “You’re maybe four or give years into this real privatization.”

‘Poorly suited’

Joshua Cowen is an education professor at Michigan State University, but spent five years at the University of Kentucky studying school choice programs around the country.

“Kentucky is really poorly suited for vouchers even under the best case scenario,” he said.

“You’re talking about a policy that’s basically targeting Jefferson County and some in Lexington and Northern Kentucky,” Cowen said. “We’re not talking about a wholesale initiative. It just wouldn’t work well in the rest of the state.”

He estimates that roughly half of Kentucky counties don’t have a private school, unless it’s a tiny church-related one that couldn’t handle an influx of new students.

Rural school districts also are the biggest employer in those counties, making it a difficult political proposition to start a program that could end many people’s employment. That’s why a universal program program in Tennessee recently lost, even with a GOP supermajority in the legislature.

A voucher program has never won a statewide vote, Cowen said.

Kentucky already underfunds public schools; the new program would create new obligations whether they were funded directly from the schools budget or from a separate part of the state budget.

Big money from school choice advocates is already flowing to Kentucky, but a coalition of public school boosters has already begun an educational campaign against Amendment 2. One will be held on June 11 at 5:30 at Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington.

Our public schools have plenty of struggles. But starving them of resources so private school students can stay in private schools is not a way to help them.


Written by Linda Blackford. Cross-posted from the Herald-Leader.

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