EdChoice Has Cleveland Heights-University Heights Schools In Limbo

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The Ohio legislature has until April 1 to stop the number of EdChoice eligible schools from almost tripling. State legislators are also entertaining many other changes to the state’s largest voucher program, which lets students use public tax dollars to go to private schools.

But EdChoice has already had a big impact on one Northeast Ohio school district. In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, 1,400 students are already using EdChoice vouchers to pay tuition at private schools.

Familes Like Having Choices

University Heights resident Dan Reynolds is among those parents who made the decision to send his child to a parochial school and use an EdChoice voucher to help with cost. His eldest daughter, Mary, attends kindergarten at St. Dominic School in Shaker Heights. She’s getting a good education, he said, including learning Spanish.

“We realized we’d have a chance to use an EdChoice voucher, it seemed like a no-brainer to us,” said Reynolds. “To have the opportunity to educate our child in a community that has weekly Mass, talks about the Catholic faith but also a community that welcomes non-Catholic kids too.”

Reynolds is an adjunct professor of Education at John Carroll University. Prior to that, he and his wife were both Catholic school teachers.

“The way I look at what vouchers can do, when designed well as good public policy, is that they can build on the strengths of both public and private systems,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s certainly true that many Catholic schools can teach children for a lower cost per pupil, because many Catholic teachers, like my wife and I, often make less than our public school counterparts, because we appreciate the mission and community that comes with being a part of a Catholic school.”

Dan Reynolds sits with his family in their University Heights home. He believes the discussion over vouchers shouldn't pit private versus public school.

Dan Reynolds sits with his family in their University Heights home. He believes the voucher discussion shouldn't pit private versus public school.  Courtesy of Jenny Hamel/ideastream

Paying for Students They Never Had

The Reynolds are not alone. In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district, seven of the school buildings are EdChoice eligible. The parents of 1,400 students in that district have chosen to send their kid to private schools, mostly Jewish and Catholic schools.

The voucher’s popularity has caused taken a big financial toll on the district, said Scott Gainer, the district’s chief financial officer.

“The thing I don’t think people realize is that 94 percent of those 1,400 kids never attended our schools,” said Gainer. “So students are accessing vouchers that never were here or never intended on coming here. So we’re not losing kids to EdChoice, we’re losing money to EdChoice.”

When a student uses an EdChoice voucher for private school tuition, the money comes out of the public school district’s budget. For a student in kindergarten through eighth grade, the voucher is worth $4,650. For a high school student, that voucher is $6,000.

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district gets roughly $2,000 per pupil from the state, so local tax dollars have to make up the difference.   

EdChoice has cost the district millions this year, Gainer said, and is a major reason district officials put a 7.9 mill levy on the ballot in March. But in an area where property taxes are high, the levy controversial. The district’s hands have been tied by the voucher program, Gainer said.

“We don’t like the harm [EdChoice] it’s doing by drawing money from the public schools. We’re asking the legislature to fund vouchers directly from the state budget and at least give public schools the amount of money you should be giving public schools,” Gainer said.

 

Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District's Chief Financial Officer Scott Gainer worries about the financial impact the EdChoice vouchers are having on the district.  Courtesy of Jenny Hamel/ideastream

Eyes On Columbus

Gainer and other district officials have gone to Columbus to plead their case as the state legislature scrambles to make fixes to EdChoice. But with the future of the voucher program in limbo, Gainer said, the district has more problems than just financial ones.

“It makes it difficult for us to bargain with the unions, makes it difficult for us to plan for next year and know what we have to work with and what staffing we have,” said Gainer. 

Officials with Cleveland Heights-University Heights are watching Columbus closely. As are parents like Dan Reynolds, who is happy with his daughter Mary’s education and wants the same for his other children.

However, Reynolds also wants Ohio legislators to create good policy that maintains choice for families without robbing public schools of resources.  He criticized the fact that the state froze funding for local districts while resting much of the financial burden of EdChoice on their shoulders.

The legislature has until April 1st to make changes to EdChoice. That’s when students can start applying for vouchers for the next school year.

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