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Upcoming EdChoice Voucher Expansion Stirs Debate

By La Prensa Staff

Backers of public education are doing everything they can to force changes to the EdChoice school voucher system in Ohio before the program expands Feb. 1, 2020 to include even more schools.

The Toledo metro area has long been at the epicenter of the school choice debate, starting as the cradle of the charter school movement nearly two decades ago. The start of education vouchers in Ohio about 15 years ago only added to that debate, which is reaching a fever pitch again.

A public hearing held Tuesday, January 21 at the downtown Toledo public library, showed just how emotional the debate has become in Ohio when it comes to school choice vouchers versus the value of a public education. State senator Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo, 11th District), a former teacher, hosted the forum to provide the public a wider view of what EdChoice is doing to public schools.

“A lot of the provisions that we had prior to this expansion were changed without any input, any discussion, and knowledge this would happen, occurred in the eleventh hour of the (state) budget (last summer), so this has been a surprise attack on public education,” she said.

Sen. Fedor also is leading the charge among Democratic state lawmakers, hoping to force the Ohio General Assembly to scale back the program before Toledo Public Schools (TPS) and suburban districts lose even more students to parochial, private, and charter schools, along with the vital state education funding that follows them elsewhere.

TPS board of education member Bob Vásquez, Lourdes Santiago, and Martha Delgado were among Latino leaders present at the public forum, where 150 people were in the audience.

Citizens for Community Values held a press conference at the Ohio Statehouse the same day to urge state lawmakers to leave the expansion of the EdChoice voucher program as it stands now. The group argues any changes made now could threaten a family’s access to an education that best meets the needs of their students. Many of those parents spent months deciding what to do as they intend to apply for a voucher once the process opens Feb. 1.

Toledo single mom Andrea De la Roca spoke at that press conference, emphasizing that school vouchers allow her to exercise her Catholic faith in pursuing a religious-based education for her three children, now ages 16, 14, and 11. Her two sons attend St. John’s Jesuit High School on EdChoice scholarships. Her youngest daughter already attends St. Benedict Catholic School, but will become eligible for an EdChoice voucher next year.

“I was born Catholic. I went to Catholic school in Guatemala, so I wanted the same experience for my children,” said Ms. De la Roca. “Faith for us is very important, so without a scholarship, I don’t know what I would do. Of course, I would try my best to keep them where they are because they are accustomed to that environment, but it would be extremely difficult.”

School choice backers long have claimed vouchers give families the chance to choose the most appropriate education for their children—and that competition would force innovation and improvements in public school districts.

Until vouchers and charter schools came along, most Latino families, with limited transportation, sent their children to a neighborhood TPS school.

Now those same families have plenty of options and opportunities from which to choose in addition to a neighborhood public school: Queen of Apostles Catholic School [K-8] with the help of an EdChoice voucher; Escuela Smart Bilingual School [K-5], which was folded into TPS as an academy for the first time this year after starting as a charter school; and L. Hollingsworth School [K-8], a charter school in East Toledo with a heavy Latino enrollment.

Traditionally, the state offers education vouchers to families in poorly performing public school districts. The legislature has expanded the definition of a low-performing school, which has widened the list of districts with underperforming schools from 40 in the fall of 2018 to 139 last year to around 400—nearly two-thirds of all school districts in Ohio—by the next academic year.

“Ohio has artificially manipulated our report cards to do exactly what it is doing now: taking away needed funding for public schools in order to hand it off to private schools,” said Sen. Fedor, while pointing out those report cards have changed six times in the last several years.

The Ohio Dept. of Education released a list in November of more than 1,200 individual schools now deemed “underperforming,” based on their latest report-card grades. That more than doubles the number of individual schools eligible for EdChoice vouchers. That now affects more deeply schools in wealthier suburban districts that usually do well as a whole on district report cards.

“There’s no apples-to-apples comparison, because there isn’t a report card for EdChoice students in those schools,” said. Sen. Fedor. “There’s very little accountability. There’s an assumption that any school is better than a public school.”

“It is those high stakes tests that are being used to label schools as failing and certainly, when that happens, there is financial impact on all schools. Really, we are at a crisis point,” said Dan Greenberg, a Sylvania Southview High School English teacher and founder of the grassroots group Northwest Ohio Friends of Public Education.

For the first time, Springfield High School will be on the EdChoice voucher list. The number of Sylvania schools will expand from two to three. That district lost 63 students—including 22 entering kindergarten—to vouchers this academic year, costing the district $276,000 in funding.

Another change in the state’s voucher system would allow private school students who’ve never attended public school to be eligible for EdChoice scholarships, further eroding state education funding for public schools. That public-school district pays $4,650 per K-8 student toward tuition and $6,000 for high-school students. If those amounts are more than the per-pupil state aid that district receives, more of their state aid is deducted to make up that difference.

“Schools are now paying for students who never set foot into a public school,” said Sen. Fedor.

“While voucher proponents will claim that they want to expand opportunities for low-income children, the truth is vouchers are really about subsidizing tuition for students in private schools,” said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association.

Opponents also claim the formula diverts local levy dollars approved by voters to those same private schools. There is research that shows that total price tag to be $330 million statewide.

“So, the idea that vouchers help students escape from failing public schools is a myth,” said Sen. Fedor. “It would be wrong to assume students eligible for EdChoice vouchers are getting a better education, especially on state reading and math tests.”

A compromise has been crafted, but there’s no indication whether the Ohio General Assembly will act in time by the end of January. There’s not enough time remaining for a stand-alone bill, so the compromise would have to be added as an amendment to existing legislation up for a vote.

The proposal would remove from the EdChoice list any school which earned an overall grade of A, B, C, or D on a building report card—and keep it that way for three years. Additionally, only incoming freshmen at private high schools would be eligible for an EdChoice voucher if they’ve never attended public school. The deal puts $10 million in state funding toward that provision.

The three-year freeze provides a window of opportunity to fix either the state’s education report cards once and for all, or craft a more palatable state school funding formula, perhaps both.

On the flip side, income-based vouchers would expand to 250 percent of the poverty level, or about $50,000 for a family of four. That is to satisfy lawmakers who want to expand to higher income levels, as well as families who may be affected by a drastic change in voucher expansion.

The proposal will be closely watched by both sides of the debate, as the Feb. 1 opening of the EdChoice application process rapidly approaches.

 

 
Copyright © 1989 to 2020 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 01/28/20 11:49:57 -0800.

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