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All Middletown Students Qualify For Vouchers. The District May End Up In The Red

Ambriehl Crutchfield
The community meeting was held at Mayfield elemantary school.

Ohio's EdChoice voucher program is making headlines for a recent change that has meant a 400% increase in the number of public schools where students qualify for private school vouchers. While this is due to the number of school buildings now considered to be "failing," one district is facing a different kind of problem under the new rules: Middletown is one district that saw all of its 10 schools on the state's "failing" list, potentially making every student in the district eligible for a voucher.

Last year, the state legislature voted to expand eligibility for the EdChoice program, which allows students in "failing" public schools to attend private schools using money from the public school district. Some districts say the expansion will cut a portion of their budgets during a time when Ohio has already frozen the amount of funding districts will get.

Vouchers are worth $4,650 for elementary students and $6,000 for high schoolers.

The Ohio Department of Education is using data from the 2013-2014, 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years to judge eligibility. One of the criteria is if a school received a "D" or "F" grade in a performance category, such as a low literacy or graduation rate. Another is if a district shows no improvement for two report cards - that includes schools that maintain an "A" or "B" grade for two consecutive years. 

Middletown School District Treasurer Randy Bertam has an analogy for this change. "Tom Brady makes it to the Super Bowl two years in a row. He didn't make it this year. He's now a failing quarterback," he says, echoing an earlier sentiment made by Republican Rep. Bill Seitz of Green Township.

Credit Ambriehl Crutchfield / WVXU
Mayfield elementary school's welcome sign.

The voucher guidelines rely on the Ohio report card, which many school districts consider to have its own issues. Styles says the state should fix the report card, study its impact and then focus its attention on expanding vouchers if it wants.

Middletown parents were welcome to ask questions about the program and its potential impact on the district.

Parent April Flint says prior to the meeting, she had only heard about the expansion on the news and that her perception has changed. "If they're taking the money away to give to a private school that's not right," she says.

Private schools have the choice of who to accept and don't have state report cards, which Middletown officials say make the playing field uneven.

Recall how vouchers are worth $4,650 for elementary students and $6,000 for high schoolers. Bertram says Middletown receives $4,200 per student per year, which sticks the district with paying the difference.

Another district parent asked Bertram if an acceptable compromise could be the state giving private and public schools a fixed dollar amount per student and have families that choose private schools pay the difference in cost. "Some kids cost a lot more to educate than other kids," Bertram responded. "I can tell you four kids in our district that cost over $100,000 a year."

Lawmakers revising the legislation are on a deadline to rework the guidelines. If the Feb. 1 deadline passes without any changes, the number of public schools where students are eligible for EdChoice will more than double during the 2020-2021 school year.

Several school districts in the Cincinnati area, like Sycamore, also oppose the state's expansion. Middletown has been reaching out to state representatives and its community members in hopes of changing the outcome.

"A lot of these vouchers are more money than the tax dollars we receive from the state," Bertram says. "So, we have to supplement that then with dollars we receive from our local levies."

Middletown City Schools projects it will spend over $2 million next school year under the current law.

Bertram says if lawmakers don't change the program the next step will be a lawsuit. Meanwhile another group, the conservative Citizens for Community Values, a longtime supporter of vouchers, says it would also consider a lawsuit if there are any changes made to the EdChoice program.