EdChoice debate: Opponents of district-funded vouchers say formula is the problem, not schools

Shaker Heights graduate Christos Ioannou.

An Ohio legislative committee adjourned without making a decision on changes to the state’s private school voucher program, but not before hearing about 50 hours of testimony over the course of a week.

The testimony came from schools districts and students from all reaches of the state, and included pleas to keep the EdChoice program in place, and emphatic arguments to get rid of the program all together.

The House and Senate have both produced proposals on “the fix” for EdChoice, the scholarship program that currently allows students in schools considered underperforming on state report cards to apply for a voucher to go to a nearby private school. The vouchers currently come out of a school district’s share of state funding.

The House passed an overhaul that would eliminate EdChoice and replace it with the Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship program that would be based solely on family household income and not on performance of schools. The funding for the vouchers would also come directly from the state, rather than being passed through the districts.

Those currently under the EdChoice program would be grandfathered into the new program.

The Senate’s version, which was on the table during conference committee hearings last week, would leave the current system of EdChoice but exempt some report card rankings, and increase the poverty level under which families fall to be eligible for the scholarships.

Those seeking to eliminate the program said the concept of “failing schools” was rather a product of a failing ranking system and state funding model.

Michelle Novak resisted sending her kids to Middletown’s public schools “because of my perception based predominantly on ranking from the report cards,” but after trying other educational models, her kids are now students there and she was even elected to the school board.

“Not only are my children excelling academically, but they’re learning empathy in an environment where diversity is normal,” Novak told the conference committee.

Middletown is on a list of “underperforming” schools, but Novak said that ranking wasn’t because of a lack of effort or ability on the school district level. Instead, it was a flawed standard for success set by the state.

“Not once did the state ask if maybe the reason we were not meeting their achievement goals was because we never received full funding for our students, which means there were always much needed supports that were not available,” Novak said.

Shaker Heights graduate Christos Ioannou worries about the impact of the ranking system based on report cards, especially as his two younger sisters continue in the school district. He said legislators need to be going to the districts to gather information about performance, and talking to administrators, parents and students alike.

“That is how we can get an accurate grasp of what’s going on in the school district,” Ioannou said. “We can only learn so much from numbers.”

Some who testified at the committee hearings weren’t arguing necessarily for the removal of the voucher program. Gina Daniels, a teacher at Licking Heights High School, said she prefers the House’s overhaul of EdChoice, but the biggest thing she wants to see is the same standards given to private schools and public schools.

“Without the ability to compare these private schools, because of their lack of a report card at all, there’s no way to know if these students are faring better there than in our transparent and accountable public schools,” Daniels said.

The superintendent of Van Wert City Schools, Vicki Brunn, said the district has not received credit in terms of performance rankings for the work they’ve been doing, despite limited resources. Although an early child center received a 5-star rating in the state’s Step Up to Quality review, and a passing grade for every third-grader on state reading tests, the district received a D on their state report card in 2019.

“How is it fair to call a public school system a failure and allow that student’s state funding to go to a private school who may score even worse using the same accountability measures?”

The Ohio Federation of Teachers sent out a statement Tuesday expressing their support for the EdChoice overhaul.

“After hearing the challenges our schools are facing and the quality programming and personnel that are being put in place to address these challenges, our legislators should be ready to put more funding into schools instead of funneling money to private schools,” said OFT president Melissa Cropper in a statement.

The Ohio Education Association had a similar opinion in a Tuesday statement on the matter. OEA president Scott DiMauro applauded the House’s version of the voucher program fix.

“Ohio educators reject the Senate plan that would continue to have hundreds of schools deemed ‘failing’ and eligible for EdChoice vouchers based on a flawed report card system,” DiMauro said.

The legislature has until April 1 to come up with a bill for the governor to sign. Both House Speaker Larry Householder and Senate President Larry Obhof were scheduled to meet with the governor to discuss EdChoice this week.