Public school officials locally, across Ohio oppose expanded vouchers

Across Ohio battle lines took the shape of press conferences Thursday as public school leaders – including those in Butler County – tried to rally public support in opposing the state’s recent expansion of a private school voucher program.

The high-profile move by public school advocates locally drew more than 150 backers - including area superintendents, school board members and others – to the Hamilton offices of the Butler County Educational Services Center.

It was rare, unified rally against Ohio’s recently expanded EdChoice private school voucher program that public school officials said will soon start costing their districts millions in funding, drain resources from their schools and quickly force them to more frequently go to local taxpayers for school tax hikes.

The new EdChoice rules will cause “catastrophic damage to the public school system in the state of Ohio,” said Billy Smith, superintendent of Fairfield Schools.

“Not only is this (EdChoice) financially devastating, but it just doesn’t make sense,” said Smith.

By allowing students from schools recently downgraded by state ratings to now have most of their private school tuition paid for by publicly funded schools would be a crushing blow to Middletown Schools, said Superintendent Marlon Styles Jr.

“We have been notified that all 10 of our schools have been designated EdChoice eligible under the EdChoice expansion program. At Middletown School we receive about $4,300 per student (in state funding) and we lose $4,650 for K-8 students through EdChoice vouchers,” said Styles.

“We also lose $6,000 per student in grades 9-12 for EdChoice vouchers. We have $2.75 million dollars being allocated to cover the costs of EdChoice vouchers. In our current 5-year forecast we are projecting about $14 million in expenditures in EdChoice vouchers,” he said.

Middletown Schools annual operating budget the 6,300-student district is $78.8 million.

Beyond the projected financial loses, the new voucher rules highlight long-standing and legal differences between public and private schools, public officials argued. Private schools can choose whom they enroll, but public schools cannot.

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And under law public schools most accommodate any student and pay for meeting their particular — and sometimes prohibitively costly — educational, mental and physical special needs.

Moreover, the voucher program funnels public money out of the public schools but makes no requirement for private schools to be graded by the state in dozens of academic areas as public schools have been for decades.

The Ohio Legislature returns from holiday break on Jan. 27. The application for the new EdChoice vouchers begins Feb. 1 for use during the 2020-2021 school year.

The short time window has public school officials urging the public to quickly pressure state legislators to change the voucher laws.

Also participating in the press conference were superintendents from Warren and northern Hamilton County, with many more in attendance.

Mason Schools released a statement that said “a growing number of students who have never been enrolled in a public school - the students were already attending a private school - are qualifying for district-paid vouchers, yet the (public) school district pays.”

“Once a student obtains a voucher, they can continue to receive vouchers throughout their education - K-12th grade, even if the school district’s report card improves. This is a cost of more than $65,000 over the student’s academic career,” the statement said.

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