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Will Voucher Fix Come in Time?

photo of elementary school classroom
An elementary school classroom.

The number of public school buildings where students will be eligible for the state’s largest private school voucher program will more than double in the coming school year. And that could blow huge holes in the budgets of 70% of Ohio’s school districts.

The EdChoice program was expanded in 2013, but because of changes in testing and state report cards, the grades school buildings got over the last few years weren’t counted in the criteria for whether they were considered failing. But now those grades are. So in the three-year period from last school year till the one that starts in August, there will be a 381% increase in the number of public school buildings where students qualify for EdChoice vouchers.

“That increase from about 250 schools to about 1,200 schools - I think there's probably fair to say some absurd results as part of that," said State Sen. Matt Huffman (R-Lima). He is a strong supporter of vouchers. But he said there’s a huge problem for the state because under the law, thousands more students are entitled to apply for EdChoice vouchers starting on February 1.

“And if we are going to look at them in the 11th hour just before they come in to apply and say we're gonna pull the rug out from underneath you, you've got a substantial legal problem.  And I think you need to do something for those folks, at least the low and middle income folks, to give them a chance to be involved.”

The down side
School districts are bracing for a big financial hit. Kevin Miller with the Ohio School Boards Association said public school budgets lost $300 million to EdChoice vouchers over the last two school years - $148 million last year alone.

“That $148 million represented 517 school buildings. So we're talking over 1,200, that's more than doubled. So we would see that single year loss probably double next school year based upon what we know.”

State Sen. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) has long opposed the expansion of voucher programs. She notes that in that uncertainty, school districts also have to face that some students who have never gone to public schools now qualify for EdChoice vouchers to pay for the private schools they have been attending.

“That was a choice that the parents chose and never intended to use the public school. So we have put a huge burden, harmful effect for these school budgets, which by law they have to have a five year forecast. So now everyone is getting on the levy treadmill.” 

What can be done?
There’s widespread agreement that a fix is needed, and before the application process opens.  Some suggestions include taking school buildings that got a grade of C or above in the last two years off the list of failing schools, along with buildings that moved up to a C from a D or F. And for many, a long term solution would include yet another overhaul of the state’s report card system, and likely scrapping the A-F grades, put in place in 2012 to replace labels such as “continuous improvement” and "effective."

Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering) told the state school board a few days ago that with only two weeks before the deadline, there isn’t time to propose a bill and put it through the committee hearing process.  So she expects changes or amendments to an education-related bill that’s already passed either the House or Senate. And she’s worried this rushed plan won’t be a good one. “In an effort to do something before February 1, I think we are at great risk of a solution that in the long run is not good for the children of this state.”

Lehner said a proposal from Huffman that is gaining traction as part of a fix is an expansion of the income level to qualify for vouchers to up to 400% of the federal poverty level. Lehner said that’s an annual income of more than $90,000 for a family of four, so it would be a huge expansion of the program. 

Kevin Miller from the school boards association has concerns as well. “School districts would be adamantly opposed to that because we've closed one dam yet to open up another floodgate and that would not be a positive.”

Lehner says without an EdChoice fix, or with a fix that includes an expansion of the income based vouchers, she’s worried not only about the hit to public schools. She’s also concerned about the effect on kids switching to very different school environments and on those private schools, which could see a flood of voucher students they’re not prepared for. And while Lehner notes income-based vouchers would be paid for by the state, not by districts, that’s money that wouldn’t be going to other state programs.

Karen is a lifelong Ohioan who has served as news director at WCBE-FM, assignment editor/overnight anchor at WBNS-TV, and afternoon drive anchor/assignment editor in WTAM-AM in Cleveland. In addition to her daily reporting for Ohio’s public radio stations, she’s reported for NPR, the BBC, ABC Radio News and other news outlets. She hosts and produces the Statehouse News Bureau’s weekly TV show “The State of Ohio”, which airs on PBS stations statewide. She’s also a frequent guest on WOSU TV’s “Columbus on the Record”, a regular panelist on “The Sound of Ideas” on ideastream in Cleveland, appeared on the inaugural edition of “Face the State” on WBNS-TV and occasionally reports for “PBS Newshour”. She’s often called to moderate debates, including the Columbus Metropolitan Club’s Issue 3/legal marijuana debate and its pre-primary mayoral debate, and the City Club of Cleveland’s US Senate debate in 2012.