Berea Superintendent Explains Impact of School Choice and Vouchers on District Finances

BEREA, Ohio – At the March 7 Berea School Board business meeting, Superintendent Tracy Wheeler and District Treasurer/Financial Director Jill Rowe explained the impact of vouchers and school choice on finances of the Berea City School District.

The council had asked for more information after several preliminary discussions.

“Voucher is a broad term that basically refers to any program where students receive money to attend a school other than their public school,” Wheeler said.

The two voucher programs in the district caused more than $600,000 in lost revenue in the 2021 fiscal year alone, she said.

“From (fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2021), state deductions from the district have increased over the years,” Rowe said. “A total of nearly $2.5 million left the district for these (voucher) programs.”

Public funding per student lost due to school choice options, such as community and parochial schools and through open enrollment (i.e. students leaving to attend another public school), was much more important.

“Over the past five years, $11 million has been deducted,” Rowe said. “While only about 6% of our students actually choose to go for different options, the deductions are significant when (the state) actually takes the money from us.”

Wheeler said the number of Ohio school buildings eligible for voucher programs grew from less than 300 in 2018 and 2019 to more than 1,200 for the 2021-22 school year.

“So it’s not about providing educational options for students attending underperforming schools,” Wheeler said. “It’s about the state paying for a private school education for families who have already demonstrated they can afford to do it on their own.”

Ohio House Bill 290, known as the Backpack Bill, currently sits in committee.

“With this bill, virtually every parent, every student, every school is eligible for a voucher,” Wheeler said. “There would be absolutely no restrictions for families to receive a voucher, even for those who have never attended a public school. It will have nothing to do with academic performance or family income.

She said lawmakers are proposing a minimum of $7,500 per student beforehand.

“If the state funds a student to take a voucher…they will give that student $7,500, when they only give us $1,700 (as the school’s per student allowance public),” Wheeler pointed out.

In addition to the financial parity issue, Wheeler said the proposed legislation is illegal.

“The Ohio Constitution has been violated … if we divert money to private and religious schools,” she said, noting that 100 public school districts have filed lawsuits.

“It’s about the constitutionality of using taxpayer dollars to fund private/parochial school programs.”

“The more the vouchers go up, the less the public schools get,” Rowe pointed out. “We believe the financial incentives will become so lucrative in the future that many more people will leave if they can.

“We will lose money as our enrollment declines. It then becomes a burden on public schools to stay afloat.

Wheeler urged the public to contact state lawmakers to voice their opinions.

“Learn about both sides of what’s going on,” she said. “We must continue to fight for our public schools.”

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