Hamilton Schools Superintendent Mike Holbrook makes a special presentation before the school board’s meeting this week on the negatives of EdChoice vouchers on his district. “This is an urgent matter. It’s going to impact Hamilton Schools for the next decade if not longer,” Holbrook told the board meeting audience Thursday night at Garfield Middle School. He is one of many area school leaders sharply criticizing the EdChoice program’s expansion by the state. (Photo By Michael D. Clark/Journal-News)

Expanding school vouchers: What both sides are saying in heated Ohio issue

The problem, complain public school leaders, is the enlarged pool of now-eligible students will be taking irreplaceable state public school funding dollars if they leave to enroll in non-public schools.

MORE: Expansion of state vouchers draws ire of local public school officials

And they blast the state for newly designating once successful public schools as “under performing,” allowing parents to pull their children out with voucher money for a transfer to private schools.

On the other side, private school parents are applauding the expanded voucher program, saying giving all school families more funding choices in where their children will be educated is overdue.

Ohio went from fewer than 300 school buildings deemed eligible for vouchers in the 2018-19 school year to more than 1,200 school buildings statewide now labeled as “under performing,” a 300 percent increase in two school years.

Next school year, 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.

The EdChoice tuition voucher program’s changes — which were part of Ohio’s latest biennium budget are scheduled for the 2020-2021 school year — also allows students already currently attending private schools to use thousands of tax dollars previously used by the public school district in which they live.

Making it worse for public school systems, claim their officials, is next school year they could be forced to fund the entire K-12 education of student who lives within their public school district but who have never set foot inside a local public school building.

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In the last weeks, across Butler county public school systems, many district websites now include “talking points” explaining EdChoice’s coming impact on school system finances.

MORE: High scoring public schools now subject to losing funding through expanded private school vouchers

Superintendents and school board members take time at public meetings to urge their audience – and those watching on local cable TV broadcasts of meetings – to contact state legislators. They stress the difference between public schools, which are evaluated annually by state education officials, and non-public schools, which aren’t.

Moreover, they argue, public schools are forced by law to accept all students while private schools can pick and choose among its applicants.

Lakota Schools Superintendent Matt Miller joined some others from Butler County schools in venting his frustration on social media. On Thursday, he posted on Twitter that “schools are listed as ‘failing’ based on poorly designed metrics. I disagree with funneling public tax $ to parochial schools - who are not held to the same testing standards. We educate ALL students.”

MORE: See how your local public school district was graded by state report card

Miller’s complaints are echoed by some state education officials.

“In the end, local taxpayers who never intended for their tax dollars to go to private and parochial schools lose, students are placed in educational settings where there is little to no accountability to taxpayers, and school districts that are doing great things for kids are inappropriately labeled as ‘failing,’” said Kevin Miller, director of governmental relations for the state’s Buckeye Association of School Administrators (BASA).

Private school parents welcome more state funds

Hamilton School officials have been among the most vociferous in urging the public to pressure legislators for a change, but city resident and private school parent Brian Doyle is pleased with the expanded EdChoice.

“I can see that the Hamilton school district views this as a negative for them, but I don’t think allowing students an opportunity to seek other educational alternatives is a negative,” said Doyle, who uses the EdChoice voucher program to fund $6,000 of the $10,400 per-student tuition send his children to nearby Badin High School, the only Catholic high school in Butler County.”

He added, “I would think a program that provides more educational options for children is a positive thing, unfortunately, Hamilton Schools district doesn’t see it this way.”

Badin Principal Brian Pendergest is sympathetic to some of the public schools’ arguments.

“I understand that the public schools are critical of how the state report card is used to determine school performance, because in many cases the state report card is not a true reflection of whether a school is successful or not. I agree that the way the (public) schools are evaluated by the state report card should be revised,” Pendergest said.

Jason Umberg, assistant principal at Fenwick High School in Middletown, said the new rules bring a higher degree of fairness for families who pay public school taxes and also the added expense of tuition to send their children to a private school.

“Our families pay taxes and have the right to have that tax money benefit the education of their own children,” he said.

Program continues growth trend

In Ohio, the expansion of school choice programs like EdChoice has grown steadily since 2005.

From 2009 to 2014, enrollment in traditional district schools dropped 12 percent in Ohio, while private and Catholic school enrollment dropped 11 percent. Online school enrollment increased 67 percent in that span, while the charter school sector as a whole increased 33 percent.

But now in the wake of last summer’s new state budget provisions, which included a $50 million expansion of state-paid, private-school vouchers for families below 200% of the federal poverty line, no matter where their home school is, a transformation for Ohio public schools of potentially historical proportions may come next school year.

Tom York, a former superintendent for two Butler County districts, a local school board member and now Talawanda High School principal, said the contentious battle between public and private schools for local and state tax funding has escalated into a highly public one.

“Public schools in Ohio have been under assault by the (Ohio) legislature since the beginning of charter schools (but) there are many concerns about the ‘ripples’ of the EdChoice program,” said York.

Staff Writer Jeremy Kelley contributed to this story

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