EdChoice vouchers rankle school supers


By David J. Coehrs - dcoehrs@aimmediamidwest.com



Students in four schools in Fulton County qualify this year for vouchers to private schools because the Ohio Department of Education views those schools as performing poorly.

But the superintendents of Swanton’s high school and elementary school, Delta’s high school, and Wauseon’s elementary school – all listed by the Educational Choice Scholarship Program, or EdChoice, as having students eligible for vouchers due to the schools’ underwhelming state report cards – disagree. They say the voucher offer is unfair, can financially strain their school districts, and should be blamed on the state’s faulty grading system.

EdChoice designates the voucher program for Ohio schools that received D and F grades on their report card for the 2014-15, 2017-18, and 2018-19 academic years. ODE representative Mandy Minick said missing academic years from the calculation are not permitted to be used under the state’s Safe Harbor legislation. That legislation was initially enacted in 2014 while school districts transitioned to new assessment and standard requirements, and was extended in the 2015 biennial budget bill.

The current EdChoice application period will be held Feb. 1 to April 15. Students awarded vouchers can be admitted to participating chartered non-public schools in the fall of 2020. Maximum scholarship amounts total $4,650 for grades K-8 and $6,000 for grades 9-12. However, a submitted scholarship amount will not exceed the tuition amount the private school charges.

A second application period will begin July 1 and stay open until available scholarships have all been awarded.

The program is funded by subtracting the cost of each student voucher from the designated school’s state aid funding.

District 81 State Rep. Jim Hoops said he’s confused why any Fulton County schools are designated for the EdChoice vouchers. “In this area I feel we have really good public school districts,” he said. “They seem to be good schools doing a good job.”

Hoops agrees with offering students in under-performing schools an alternative, but said the state’s grade card system and graduation issues need to be reviewed. He said in just 18 months the number of EdChoice-designated schools in Ohio jumped from 30 to 423.

“What I see are schools that I think are doing a pretty good job but are considered low-grade. Is this really showing a true picture of what the schools are doing?” he said.

Swanton Local Schools Superintendent Chris Lake said the district’s high school and elementary school just received the EdChoice designation, and he can’t surmise how many students will take the option. He has drafted a resolution to formally oppose the program, and has considered adding it to the Board of Education agenda.

“I do not believe that the current system for determining EdChoice is fair to schools,” Lake said.

He said Ohio schools in the past qualified for EdChoice based on several factors instead of just one. ”In some cases, buildings are being qualified for EdChoice based on a very small segment of their student population’s performance. This is in no way an equitable system,” he said.

As an example, Lake questioned whether a student taking six classes and receiving grades of an A, two Bs, two Cs, and an F should be considered a failure. “Or would you say that they had one area which needed improvement? Under the new EdChoice guidelines, a school with similar grades to this student example would be considered a failure, when common sense would tell you they are not,” he said.

Lake considers EdChoice a misguided effort “that takes taxpayer money and throws it into a black hole. Public schools in Ohio are held to exacting standards for performance and financial accountability. The same cannot be said for private and charter schools in the state of Ohio.”

And because private schools are not issued grade cards like public schools, “there is zero accountability for the public money that EdChoice steals from the public schools and funnels their way,” he added. “The track record for charter schools in Ohio is one of rampant failure and shady dealings. One only need look at ECOT to get the idea.”

EdChoice violates the bedrock American principle of separation of church and state, Lake said. “Ohio has a constitutional obligation to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools, and EdChoice undermines that obligation.”

Minick said EdChoice’s funding is structured under the Ohio Revised Code so that state dollars follow the individual student to the new school. She said in the meantime the state board of education has suggested the state cover the cost of the EdChoice vouchers awarded during the present biennium. The board also thinks qualifying high school students should be required to attend a public school in the year prior to requesting a voucher.

“As the legislature considers the various suggestions that have been proposed, (the ODE) stands ready to provide guidance on how these and other proposed changes could be implemented in Ohio schools,” Minick said.

According to Troy Armstrong, Wauseon schools superintendent, no parents in the district have applied for the voucher.

EdChoice selected Wauseon Elementary School because the school district received a D grade in K-3 literacy for two years. Elementary school students who may receive the scholarship voucher may keep it even after the school is no longer designated by EdChoice.

“EdChoice is wrong,” Armstrong said. “Using public dollars to fund non-public school attendance is not right. Taking more money per student than received from a public district is not right. Non-public schools do not have a state accountability measure, which is not right. I strongly oppose EdChoice.”

Armstrong said the program “is an unfair way to fund non-public schools with public school dollars,” and will negatively impact Wauseon schools. He said when a student attends a non-public school outside of EdChoice the school district doesn’t receive funding for the student. But with EdChoice the non-public student may take the amounts set.

“Non-public schools are not held to the same standards as public schools, and potentially have worse academic scores,” Armstrong said. “Not to mention, current Title funding flows through the public school district where the non-public school resides. The personnel hours to plan, budget, and expend these funds falls upon the public school district, with no financial support from the state.”

Armstrong planned to introduce a resolution objecting to EdChoice at Monday’s regularly-scheduled Board of Education meeting.

By David J. Coehrs

dcoehrs@aimmediamidwest.com

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.