The Origin of the Current Voucher Calamity in Ohio

Sourced from: Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding

The current voucher scene in Ohio is a fiasco. The actions of voucher-friendly state officials have led many Ohioans to believe they are entitled to vouchers. A stealth EdChoice amendment that was slithered into the state budget bill caused significant financial harm to the common school system and gave a lot of voucher seekers the expectation that they were entitled to a free ride to private school at public expense. Recent legislative attempts to ameliorate the dire consequences of the ugly EdChoice amendment have merely delayed the implementation of the problem amendment.

The journey to the current voucher calamity started in the 1950s. Economist Milton Friedman pushed the dumb idea that the only role of government in education is to transfer tax funds to people to shop for education in the marketplace; hence, issue vouchers.

President Reagan was prone to say “government is the problem”; hence, he considered public schools to be a problem and supported the voucher idea. When he accepted the Nation at Risk report, he said he was pleased with the recommendation for vouchers (the report did not even mention vouchers).

President George H.W. Bush was an avid voucher advocate. In a speech at Veterans Memorial in Columbus on November 25, 1991, Mr. Bush proposed that Ohio issue a voucher to each Ohio student.

A November 26, 1991 Cincinnati Enquirer article by Dick Kimmins quoted Mr. Bush: “We won‘t have full confidence in education until the dollar follows the scholar. I expect Ohio to go the full distance in giving choice to parents.” Further, the article stated, “The President’s remarks were well-received except for his advocacy of some form of public aid to non-public schools.”

However, Governor George Voinovich was quoted in the article; “It is something that should be looked at.” Voinovich said he would appoint a study group in a few weeks.

Since the late 1960s when the “fair bus bill” (student transportation to private schools at public expense), Ohio has been extremely generous in financial support of private schools. In fact, Ohio was first in the nation in support of private schools by the early 1990s when Governor George Voinovich started his campaign for vouchers.

Voinovich had powerful allies in his voucher campaign—President Bush 41, Akron Industrialist David Brennan and a select group of church leaders. At that time, the all-elected state board of education was not favorable to vouchers; however, Voinovich’s hand-picked Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ted Sanders, former interim Secretary of Bush’s Department of Education, was not opposed to vouchers.

Not surprising, Voinovich appointed Brennan as chair of the Parent Choice committee. The six Latin Rite Bishops of Ohio submitted names for the committee. In a July 26, 1991 letter, Voinovich thanked Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk for submitting names for the committee: “Just a short note to thank you for the list of names you submitted from the six Latin Rite Bishops of Ohio. I have sent those names to David Brennan who is heading up the Governor’s Committee on Choice. Dave is reviewing the names, and I expect to hear in the very near future as we prepare to call our first meeting and lay out our agenda. As soon as Dave and I coordinate this, I will be in touch with you.”

In a July 18, 1991 letter faxed to David Brennan, Voinovich asked Brennan to review the list and get back to him with any additional names. Further, Voinovich asked Brennan to draft a letter to be signed by the Governor’s inviting members of the committee to a meeting in Columbus.

Prior to the formation of the committee to study a voucher plan, an April 18, 1991 letter to Bishop Pilla (Diocese of Cleveland), the Governor wrote: “As you know David and I have begun to organize a committee which will put together an effort to get Ohio to seriously look at a voucher system.” Further the Governor stated: ”We are quietly lining up ‘heavy hitters’ in the business community and are trying to identify someone in the legislature who would be willing to become our advocate.” It should be noted that the purpose of the committee was to promote a voucher system—not to determine the efficacy or benefits to be accrued.

Although the Cleveland Scholarship program didn’t start until 1996, a lot of groundwork and backroom deals seemed to be necessary to nudge the Ohio legislature to open the door which would eventually be a floodgate.

Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, in an August 27, 1993 letter to Governor Voinovich, refer to the proposed Ohio Scholarship legislation. He indicated in the letter that the bishops will keep a “low profile position on the bill”. However, he indicates that parent organizations in each diocese would do the lobbying. “We believe, however, the parent organization’s in each diocese will play a very active role in lobbying its passage. I am sure they will organize a strong grassroots effort within each legislative district to influence the outcome of this controversial issue. We will encourage this effort.”

While the voucher proposal was inching forward, Governor Voinovich seems to have committed to an increase in the administrative cost reimbursement budget line item.

In a March 24, 1994 letter to the Governor, Archbishop Pilarczyk expressed disappointment that the increase would not be addressed in the budget corrections bill. The Archbishop also requested that non-public schools be considered in the SchoolNet program.

In a May 31, 1994 letter to Akron Industrialist David Brennan, Governor Voinovich expressed appreciation for a fishing trip Brennan hosted and stated some of his thoughts regarding vouchers. This was one month before Perry County Judge Linton Lewis issued his decision that Ohio’s school system is unconstitutional. The Governor expressed that they must move quickly to get a voucher proposal in the next budget bill. He indicated he was interested in a “full blown national pilot program.” He also indicated to Brennan that he was willing to talk about charter schools. Apparently, Mr. Brennan had raised the charter school issue.

In a February 2, 1995 letter, Archbishop Daniel A. Pilarczyk thanked the Governor for putting in the budget bill “everything that you and we had discussed over the last twelve or fifteen months”.

In a March 24, 1995 letter to the Archbishop, the Governor mentioned that the scholarship

program (vouchers) would be limited to Cleveland.

A May 23, 1995 letter from the Governor to Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, Diocese of Cleveland, reveals a couple priorities of the Voinovich administration. Voinovich expressed pride in the state’s commitment to the support of private schools: “I think it is important for people to understand-even though the public school people in some districts are complaining they are being shortchanged, Ohio is doing a better job than any other state in the nation in terms of providing for our non-public schools.”

Further in the May 23, 1995 letter, the Governor pleads for help in promoting the voucher proposal. He laments that the proposal does not go “as far as most people would like it to go but it is the first step.” “It is one of those things that, if it is successful, which I think it will be, we can point to it and start to move so that 10 to 15 years from now, we will see much more of it taking place in the country. Who knows—it may be so good it will sweep Ohio and then the country.” Mr. Voinovich was partly accurate. Vouchers did sweep Ohio, but not because vouchers are so good. There is not one shred of evidence that vouchers improve educational opportunities.

But 25 years later, vouchers are a calamity in Ohio.

Governor Voinovich touted his Cleveland voucher program in an October 16, 1996 letter to the Archbishop of New York. He stated: ”You may be interested to know that Ohio’s choice pilot program in Cleveland is the first in the nation to include religious schools.”

Six months later, Voinovich wrote to Bishop Anthony Pilla, Diocese of Cleveland, indicating that, “We should really see if we can’t stimulate more support for a non-public school system.” In that April 21, 1997 letter (written one month after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Ohio’s public common school system unconstitutional), he mentioned he had recently met with several businessmen in Naples, Florida, many of whom like David Brennan, “are very committed to the scholarship school choice crusade.”

Indeed, Governor Voinovich was on a mission to promote vouchers, not only in Ohio, but nationwide. The last paragraph of the April 21, 1997 letter states: “The point I am making is that we can do a lot more for non-public schools in the United States of America and I would like to help you get it done. I am going to be President of the National Governors’ Association beginning July of this year, and I would be willing to pitch in and do my part.”

Some crusaders for vouchers throughout the nation were contemporary with Voinovich; and many voucher zealots followed in the footsteps of early voucher campaigners.

In Ohio, a few zealous voucher campaigners have successfully initiated and expanded a half dozen different voucher schemes. Hundreds of millions have been drained from public school districts for vouchers that contravene the plain language of the Ohio Constitutional provisions for public education.

Governor Voinovich and Akron Industrialist David Brennan worked tirelessly on their voucher campaign since the very beginning of the Voinovich administration. President G.H.W Bush, in a Columbus speech on November 25, 1991, recommended a voucher for every student. Although a system of vouchers was not popular with Ohio citizens, the Bush recommendation gave the Governor license to pursue his campaign to foist his voucher scheme on the legislature and the citizens of Ohio.

Voinovich appointed Brennan to head up a committee to study the role of vouchers in Ohio. A variety of documents suggested that Voinovich and Brennan used the committee to promote vouchers rather than to objectively study them.

Were students the primary beneficiaries of the Cleveland voucher plan? The third paragraph of a December 14, 1999 article-Voucher plan falls far short of goals--in the Akron Beacon Journal suggested not. “After three years of schooling; however, the voucher program has instead become a subsidy to the Roman Catholic church, and there are serious questions as to whether Cleveland schoolchildren have benefitted, according to an Akron Beacon Journal analysis of data and records.”

Studies have shown that there is not a statistically significant difference of students from the public-school control groups and those that take advantage of the program throughout their academic careers. The Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program: Summary report (1998-2004) [Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University, 2006].

Notwithstanding the lackluster Cleveland voucher program performance, state officials in Ohio have launched a half dozen more voucher programs which have drained hundreds of millions from the constitutionally required common school system.

A group of taxpayers in the Cleveland area filed a case against the Cleveland voucher program pleading that the government could not pay tuition for students to attend religious schools. The local federal district court and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. However, in a 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state.

The court majority in Zelman, ruled that the voucher program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment even though 96 percent of the voucher students attended religious schools. It is curious how the court arrived at that decision.

In the 1947 Emerson case which involved student transportation, the court ruled that transportation provided to private school students was not a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Emerson majority concluded that the reimbursements for transportation “were separate so indisputably marked off from the religious function”. The majority said, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. New Jersey has not breached it here”.

Emerson was the first U.S. Supreme Court case incorporating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as binding on the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The majority reasoned that transportation payments were permissible because such payments were made to the parents. The minority argued that the transportation support essentially provides support for religious training and teaching.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in the 1971 Lemon case struck down a Pennsylvania statute that allowed reimbursement for salaries of private religious schoolteachers who taught from public textbooks and with public instructional materials. The Court held in

Lemon that for a law to be considered constitutional under the Establishment Clause, the law must:

  1. Have a legitimate secular purpose

  2. Not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion

  3. Not result in an excessive entanglement of government and religion

Hence, if any of the “tests”-purpose, effect, excessive government entanglement-is violated, the government action is unconstitutional.

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Minnesota law that allowed a $500 per elementary student ($700 per high school student) deduction from state income tax. The deduction applied to expenses for both private and public schools. The Lemon test seemed to be irrelevant to the Court in Mueller.

Since Mueller, the Court has ruled more favorably toward government-fostered aid such as in the case of Zelman.

This is the last installment of this series regarding the origin of the Ohio voucher fiasco.

In the first seven of the series, a mere sketch of the voucher history has been presented.

The voucher scheme and its crime-prone kin-charter enterprise took root in the anti-public school environment created by the flawed 1983 Nation at Risk report. The report implied that the American public school system is a colossal failure. Every president since Jimmy Carter has promoted policies (some more than others) that assumes failure of the public system and has pushed dubious “reforms” that includes alternatives to the public system.

School reform was on the agenda of many if not most state legislatures in the nation beginning in about 1990 with the Bush 41 administration.

In 1988, an Ohio legislator sponsored Senate Bill 140, a school reform measure. The bill was announced to the press but had no content. A collection of diverse reform ideas including open enrollment was hurriedly crammed into the bill. It was within this reform-mania environment that vouchers and charters took root.

Subsequent to the Cleveland voucher program, other voucher plans were legislated in Ohio. Hundreds of millions are being deducted from school districts annually for vouchers.

The additional voucher schemes are quite different from the Cleveland voucher program which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the state in Zelman. The Ohio voucher schemes are ripe for a challenge in the state court system.

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