Q&A: The Spotlight Is On Ohio's Controversial EdChoice School Voucher

a colorful, empty elementary school classroom with desks
For Ohio students in kindergarten through eighth grade, the vouchers are worth $4,650. For high school students, that voucher is worth $6,000. [Anna Nahabed / Shutterstock]
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Since 2006, Ohio has provided publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private or religious schools. Now the number of students eligible to get those vouchers is about to see a huge spike. This has educators and legislators in Columbus scrambling. “Morning Edition” host Amy Eddings spoke with ideastream education reporter Jenny Hamel about the possible expansion of the EdChoice voucher program.

How does this work and what does it do?

EdChoice is the state's largest school voucher program. It allows students at public school buildings deemed underperforming or failing by the state to get a voucher to go to a private or religious school. For students in kindergarten through eighth grade, the vouchers are just over $4,500. For high school students, that voucher is worth $6,000.

EdChoice has been around for years. But the number of schools that will be EdChoice eligible has exploded. Remind me why those numbers are set to go up when applications start getting accepted Feb. 1.

Next fall, as it stands now, there will be roughly 1,200 schools in 400 districts that are EdChoice eligible. That's more than double the number of schools currently eligible. And as you mentioned that change, it's happening because there's some changes in state law. The list now includes schools that had been protected during a safe-harbor period. So, legislators are hearing from angry constituents. And in Columbus, they are really trying to stop this impending explosion.

I know a lot of public school officials have been speaking out against the EdChoice expansion. You've spoken to some.

Yeah, I spoke to Walter Davis, the superintendent of the Woodridge Local School District. He says that his school district gets less than $1,000 per pupil from the state. But if there were any schools on the eligibility list, they would have to pay up to $6,000 per pupil for that voucher.

“I don't believe any Woodridge resident who went to the polls to vote for an operating levy thought that they were voting such that money could be taken from local revenues to support our school district and sent to a religious school or a private school of some other nature somewhere else,” Davis said.

And so, it's important to note that actually, Woodridge has no schools on the EdChoice eligibility list right now. But [Davis] still felt it was important enough to write a letter to parents urging them to contact their representatives about this issue. And he says, as a measure of accountability, he believes the state report card is deeply flawed.

There are parents and students who are currently taking advantage of the EdChoice vouchers. You spoke to one from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District.

Right. And in that district, there are people who are loving this option. There are hundreds of students using the EdChoice vouchers. School officials say they are losing millions of dollars but – some parents are really happy about this choice. I spoke to Michael Murphy, a father of three in University Heights. His eldest daughter is using an EdChoice scholarship to go to a Catholic school. You know, he says that some parents, they’ll move their families into school districts with schools with better reputations. But some parents don't have that option or don't want to leave their neighborhood.

“If you're in a school district or assigned to a school building that's not performing, then you know, you should have the ability to make that choice for your child,” Murphy said.

And Murphy adds that he pays very high property taxes. He wants a say in his kids’ education. And he says that with this EdChoice option, it takes away a motivation to essentially leave the neighborhood, go to another school district.

I know that there's an effort at the Statehouse to walk back some of these changes, to keep EdChoice from exploding. What are you hearing?

I had a conversation with Sen. Peggy Lehner, she chairs the Education Committee. She does expect what they're calling this scale back. She does expect them to push that through. Sen. Matt Dolan has sponsored an amendment, which is getting traction, so it would limit that number of EdChoice-eligible schools to the status quo. But it would allow more Ohio students to get vouchers based on income. And that's through the EdChoice expansion program. But we should expect to see a lot of movement in Columbus when it comes to EdChoice.

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