Hamilton Schools Superintendent Mike Holbrook, standing, briefs school principals from the Butler County school system about the ramifications of the state’s new Ed Choice program. Area school officials are joining a growing statewide chorus of objection to changes in the program, which designates many previously high-rated schools as now deficient enough in some areas to allow school parents to be paid by public districts to enroll their children in private schools. (Provided Photo/Journal-News)

Expanded school choice program draws ire of local public schools

The new “EdChoice” changes don’t kick in until next year but since the recent announcement of expanded eligibility for public school families, school leaders locally have been scrambling to brief their principals and the public on the state mandate that some characterize as an attack on public schools.

MORE: High-scoring public schools now subject to private school voucher program

Public school buildings, which previously have been rated high enough by the Ohio Department of Education’s annual building report cards that families did not have access to the school-choice exit option, will instead be designated as “underperforming” if only a subset of students or academic subjects now fall into that category.

Some local school officials say the changes are jeopardizing millions of dollars of their operating budgets and creating chaos in planning staffing for public school enrollments starting in the 2020-21 school year.

Next school year, according to the ODE, 36 school buildings in eight of Butler County’s 10 public school districts will be designated as underperforming, so parents will be eligible for EdChoice funding to send their children to private schools.

Of Warren County’s seven school districts, 13 schools in six of the districts will be eligible for EdChoice funding.

Matt Miller, superintendent for Lakota Schools, Butler County’s largest district, said the new plan overly benefits private schools at the expense of public school systems.

Miller said that “the private schools benefiting from this program are not held to the same accountability measures as our public schools, making this whole fiasco seem like nothing more than a money grab by our state legislators.”

Talawanda Schools Superintendent Ed Theroux echoed those complaints, saying that “the EdChoice voucher system is ill conceived, poorly developed and is an attack against public education.”

Fairfield Schools Superintendent Billy Smith also criticizes the changes, calling them “an attack on public education.”

Individual schools are placed on the EdChoice eligibility list if they fail to meet any of six performance markers tied to the state report card for schools.

MORE: See how your local school district was graded in the latest Ohio report card

But some state legislative leaders say the criteria, and the report card that underpins them, may be the problem.

“You have high-performing schools that are getting dinged on EdChoice for low (student growth) scores because they can’t go any higher,” said Ohio Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner. “Solon, the top-scoring school district in the state, has a school that’s eligible for EdChoice. That’s crazy.”

The number of individual schools where students are eligible to leave via voucher rose from 255 to 487 statewide this year, and will skyrocket to 1,233 next fall – more than one-third of all Ohio public schools.

The number of districts with at least one affected school rose from 32 to 137 this year, and will soar to 426 of Ohio’s 610 districts next year.

Miller said “the fact that all seven Lakota schools on this year’s EdChoice voucher list - in addition to other high-performing districts in our area and across the state - have overall passing grades confirms the flawed system our state is using to measure the success of Ohio public schools.”

“Last year, the financial impact on Lakota was minimal, as compared to many of our neighboring districts. That’s all thanks to the unwavering support of our parents who remained committed to Lakota,” said Miller.

“Next year’s impact is yet to be seen, but either way, we stand in support of public education and the 1,233 Ohio schools being impacted by this absurdity,” he said.

Smith said “unless something changes, the EdChoice will have a devastating impact on our school district.”

“Because of the EdChoice scholarship program, our district is projected to lose $3.3 million dollars for the 2020-2021 school year. Over the course of the next four years, this EdChoice program will result in the district losing $14.5 million dollars in funding,” said Smith.

He added seven of Fairfield’s schools next school year will be on the EdChoice designated school list.

“Of the seven schools on the list, only one of them has an overall grade lower than a ‘C.’ These seven schools are (now) being classified as ‘underperforming’ based on report card results,” he said.

Tracey Carson, spokeswoman for Mason Schools, Warren County’s largest district, said that “the Mason Early Childhood Center is on the list - which is strange since it educates students in grades Pre-kindergarten to 2nd grade who do not even take state tests.”

“We deeply believe in the high-quality education we provide our youngest learners, and are disturbed by the state’s arbitrary methodology for defining a school as “underperforming,” said Carson.

“Ohio’s experiment with ‘school choice’ now drains resources from high-performing public schools and diverts scarce education funding to private schools - regardless of how much a family makes, or the quality of the school their child may attend,” she said.

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