By James Lautzenheiser

At the end of this month, the Ohio General Assembly will consider revisions to the EdChoice voucher program that could include wide-ranging expansions for eligibility and application. Specific language in proposed amendments could include provisions that allow parents to seek vouchers on behalf of their student from a public school district, even if that student had previously not attended that specific district. Individual schools within a school district would be identified as voucher eligible based upon value-added scores from high-stakes testing.

Six or seven-year-old data that identified schools as failing or at-risk to fail could increase the opportunity for students to apply for vouchers and leave the school district for a neighboring private school. The “reach back” for identification of eligible school buildings has already increased from 238 (2018-2019) to 500 (2019-2020), and is projected to include over 1,200 across the state of Ohio in 2020-2021. This dramatic increase in building eligibility reflects the continuing statewide concern with current State Report Card formats and reporting. It also would translate into the potential for mass-scale transfer of public tax dollars from public school districts to neighboring private schools.

The voucher program in Ohio was initially intended to allow students that could not afford an option to escape low performing schools a choice to improve their educational path. Sadly, this is not what is happening with these voucher escalations. More than half of these newly eligible buildings received an overall grade of A, B, or C for the building on the State Report Card. Inconsistent and unreliable reporting from Value-Added Data that is linked to high-stakes testing means that up to 70 percent of public schools could be affected by these policy changes.

Using the rapidly expanding EdChoice voucher as a default for students, under this new format, means that an enlarged population of students that never attended your public school could “cash out” and take taxpayer dollars from your school district for tuition to neighboring private schools. New student “scholarship” vouchers would range between $4,000-6,000 per student, and schools could not be removed from this extensive list of eligibility once they were initially listed — EVEN if new State Report Card data demonstrates that the school has substantially improved!

The Ohio General Assembly has already frozen educational financial resources per district (foundation aid) for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years. An unwise and overwhelming expansion of EdChoice voucher eligibility would place incredible financial burdens on public school districts at a time where statewide budget support is already capped for the foreseeable future. Rural and small-city school districts, like those in Van Wert County, attempt to operate responsible budgets at reasonable levy rates for their district residents. Our local taxpayers deserve to know that their hard-earned tax dollars are benefiting their local school district rather than being raided for unnecessary voucher programs.

Rather than drastically expand the EdChoice voucher program, the Ohio General Assembly needs to use this moment to develop and support programs and initiatives that cultivate success within public school districts. There should be a cap on how much any district can lose to educational vouchers, and any future expansion of statewide voucher programs should be directly funded by the Ohio General Assembly rather than individual school districts.

The Ohio General Assembly needs to use this moment to communicate with educators, administrators and parents in order to ensure that our school children in Van Wert County continue to have adequate resources and opportunities for success. The long-term solution to these concerns must include linking State Report Card data to the goals of the Ohio Strategic Plan rather than controversial application of Value-Added Data from unreliable, high-stakes testing. Additionally, a fair and equitable school funding formula must include separate line-items for voucher programs. Public school students, which are the overwhelming majority of Ohio’s K-12 student population, should not be the ones who suffer when families choose to leave the public school system for private alternatives.

Our state legislators need to be addressing these issues at face-to-face meetings with public school teachers, administrators, parents and students instead of behind closed doors with private school voucher enthusiasts. Time is running out for the Ohio General Assembly to make the right choice for our public schools.

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James Lautzenheiser lives in Convoy and teaches eighth grade American history at Crestview Middle School. He also serves as President of the Crestview Employees Association (CEA, OFT-AFT).