What Led to This Week's School Choice Conundrum?

Jan 28, 2020
Originally published on January 28, 2020 5:20 am

This is the week that advocates for school choice are highlighting alternatives to traditional public schools.

One choice that may be available to a growing number of parents is a voucher to use public money to pay for private education.

That expansion of Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program could devastate public school budgets unless lawmakers take action this week.

Voucher eligibility

Kevin Miller is director of governmental relations with the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, representing school superintendents across the state.

I asked him to explain Ohio’s EdChoice program which provides vouchers to low income families and families whose local school has received an F on its state report card.

“The income-based one says that if a family is at 200% of the federal poverty level, they’re eligible for a voucher to go to a school of their choice.

The one that’s causing all the issues right now is the EdChoice scholarship program which says that if your building is a low performing building based on results of the local report card, then you as a family can receive a voucher for your child or children to attend a private or parochial school.

That voucher is $4,650 for a student who is in kindergarten through 8th grade, $6,000 for a student who is in 9 through12th grade.”

He says some of that comes from the state, the rest is covered by the district.

The switch from 'and' to 'or'

Miller says the problem is that a small change made in Ohio law seven years ago has led to more than one-third of Ohio schools now being labeled ‘failing’.

“It was the simple change from ‘and’ to ‘or’. The previous legislation used the word ‘and,' that you had to be low-performing in a variety of areas on the local report card," says Miller. 

"That legislation changed the word ‘and’ to ‘or’ meaning that you could be low-performing in just one component of the local report card to become EdChoice eligible.  And that’s what has opened the floodgates to over 70% of our school districts having at least one building EdChoice eligible.”

That means even if a school has an overall passing grade, an F in one or more of the six grading criteria, triggers the vouchers.

Adding to the confusion is that Ohio is combining school grades dating back to 2014 with the two most recent years to create a three year average.

“So it’s actually quite a convoluted mess,” says Miller.

It’s all coming to a head this week because parents can begin applying for the vouchers starting on Saturday.

Putting parents first

But not everyone is predicting a mass exodus from the more than 1,200 schools that could be forced to provide vouchers.

Aaron Churchill is Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a school choice advocacy group.

“Most parents are very happy with their public schools.”

He agrees that the broad labeling of ‘failing’ schools and the rapid expansion of the voucher program muddies the waters of effective school choice for parents.

“The original idea of EdChoice is to link eligibility to household income and that will get us out of the debate over what’s a good school academically, what’s a low-performing school, and that would be very helpful.”

Churchill acknowledges that a rapidly expanding voucher program will put significant strain on many school budgets, but believes parental choice is paramount.

“And we should ask ourselves what do we do for families that want private school choice and want that type of educational model for their kid, where do they fit into our policies?”

The biggest week in school choice policy

Ohio began its voucher program 15 years ago, providing private school funding to students on the autism spectrum or with disabilities.  Any student in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is also eligible for private school vouchers.   

But the Ohio Superintendents Association’s Kevin Miller says the big change that could be coming to districts is more the result of legislative missteps than intentions, and any fix to the private school voucher program needs to happen by Friday.

“It’s interesting that school choice recognition week falls at the same time that legislators are working on probably the biggest issue we’ve ever seen in Ohio regarding school choice.”

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford), despite vocal outcry from school choice advocates, has said that he would like to see a legislative fix. Similar efforts are underway in the Senate.

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