COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — More than 200 public school districts challenging Ohio’s school voucher program can continue to trial, a Franklin County judge ruled earlier this month.

In a 22-page decision, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Jaiza Page rejected the Ohio Attorney General’s argument on Dec. 16 that the districts, including Columbus City Schools, lacked standing to sue and failed to sufficiently allege the state’s EdChoice Scholarship Program hurts public schools and their students.

“We take it as a really good sign,” Columbus City Schools Board Member Eric Brown said of Page’s decision. “The state tried hard to get the case dismissed for a bunch of reasons, and Judge Page thoroughly and in her diligence […] found that their position just lacked merit.”

Keith Neely, a Virginia-based attorney representing private school students in support of EdChoice, said he and his clients are disappointed in Page’s ruling but confident the voucher program will prevail.

“School choice programs like the EdChoice Program have been constitutional in Ohio for over 20 years,” Neely said in a statement. “During that time, countless families have used the program to access better educational opportunities for their children.”

Why is Ohio’s school voucher program being sued?

Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship program was enacted in 2005 to help low-income students and those in underperforming districts afford tuition at a private school. 

In the 2022-23 school year, Ohio awarded $315 million in state-funded vouchers to 57,000 students – more than triple the participation rate in 2014 – according to data from the state Department of Education.

But in a class action lawsuit filed in January 2022, a handful of public school students, the 200-plus districts, and the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding argued the EdChoice program violates the state constitution’s mandate for a single, public system of education.

“This voucher program effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources,” plaintiffs wrote in their complaint, “creates an ‘uncommon’, or private, system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers, siphons hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds into private (and mostly religious) institutions, and discriminates against minority students by increasing segregation in Ohio’s public schools.”

Students, school districts, advocacy group can sue EdChoice, judge rules

On behalf of the state, the Attorney General’s Office claimed the students and school districts shouldn’t be able to sue EdChoice because neither demonstrated a specific injury caused by the program.

Page, however, found the student plaintiffs eligible to sue since they alleged EdChoice has left public schools with less funding per pupil, and “public schools students are faced with overcrowded facilities, inadequate materials, and are educated in districts with insufficient learning supports.”

The state urged Page to dismiss the districts and the coalition from the suit, too, arguing that they failed to prove “a specific injury caused by vouchers,” like an educational program being cut. Public schools “have actually received increased funding” since EdChoice’s inception, defendants said.

Page again struck down the Attorney General’s argument, pointing to the districts’ and coalition’s claim that EdChoice has allotted public schools with insufficient funds to adequately educate and support students. The state’s claim that public schools’ budgets have grown in recent years “is not persuasive at this state of the proceedings,” Page said.

“The allegations revolved around the districts not receiving funds through the Fair School Funding Plan that were diverted to the EdChoice program, not whether the Districts have received more money than in prior budget years,” she wrote.

Precedent points to upholding EdChoice, state argues

Pointing to four prior cases, two of which concerned the state’s pilot school voucher program based in Cleveland, the Attorney General’s Office argued that the concept of EdChoice has already been declared constitutional in the court of law.

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the school voucher program for students in Cleveland City School District as constitutional. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court reached a similar ruling, finding the pilot program a “neutral” one that helped poor students in underperforming districts while “not endorsing religious schooling.”

But Page wrote that the EdChoice program has broadened its scope since its statewide adoption in 2005. More families are eligible for EdChoice, and there’s no longer a cap on the number of vouchers that can be awarded. 

“While the voucher program in Zelman was upheld, the facts and questions before this Court are distinguishable,” she wrote.

Both parties will present evidence to assert their claims. Although the case is headed to trial, Brown said it’s unlikely a date will be scheduled for six months to a year.