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EdChoice depletes public schools

Districts lose students, funds to voucher program

091219...R REPORT 2...Youngstown...09-12-19...William Holmes McGuffey PK-8 Elementary School 3rd grade teacher Marc Ellis teaches a math lesson to students...by R. Michael Semple

Loss of students because of the availability of EdChoice vouchers has cost Mahoning Valley public school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, and now the indecision by state legislators on how the voucher system will expand has local educators concerned about their futures.

Over the last three years, Youngstown City Schools had 936 students request and receive vouchers to go to private and parochial schools throughout the Valley. These student losses are added to the students that already have left the school district.

Youngstown school district leaders have joined others across the state expressing concern about the possible expansion of EdChoice vouchers and the possible impact on schools and districts.

In the current school year, Youngstown will lose $6.5 million in state funds that will follow students to their new schools, according to statistics provided by the district.

Schools CEO Justin Jennings said the district has an estimated $129 million total budget and EdChoice vouchers take about $38 million.

“We are looking at how we are spending our money,” Jennings said. “We make sure we’re spending as much grant money as possible and not out of our general fund.”

Jennings said it is important for the district to present the best product possible to parents and residents, so they will not want to send their students to other schools.

“We have attractive choices, such as Choffin (Career and Technical Center) and (Youngstown) Early College,” Jennings said.

Jennings sent letters to members of the state legislature and others, resisting expansion of EdChoice because of the effect on the school system. He met with state Sen. Peggy Lehner of Kettering last week to explain how the EdChoice legislation, House Bill 154 and HB 70, have affected the district.

ABOUT EDCHOICE

Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship program began in 2005 to provide opportunities for students attending underperforming public school districts to go to private, often religious, schools. EdChoice vouchers pay $4,650 per year for kindergarten through eighth-grade students and $6,000 for ninth- through 12th-grade students.

In the current academic year, 29,000 scholarships have been awarded across the state, according to legal action filed by a Columbus-based group, Citizens for Community Values. The cap is up to 60,000 scholarships in Ohio.

Last week, Ohio legislators were attempting to wrap up legislative changes that would have prevented the already scheduled expansion of the program from more than 400 schools to 1,227 schools across the state. Because there was no agreement, however, legislators agreed to extend the application deadline for new voucher applications to April 1.

Citizens for Community Values on Monday filed its writ of mandamus action in the Ohio Supreme Court, asking the court to prevent the application period delay, so parents immediately will be able to begin making voucher applications.

It argues in the filing, the current EdChoice law is in effect and delaying the application period hurts Ohio families and schools in their planning for the next school year.

“The General Assembly may not now pass any law modifying the population of children eligible to receive EdChoice scholarships for the 2020-21 academic year,” argues the group. “The right of Ohio citizens to apply for and obtain EdChoice scholarships for 2020-21 is vested and may not be rescinded or modified in any way.”

On Wednesday, the Ohio House passed 88 to 7 an amendment to legislation that mostly eliminates EdChoice vouchers based on State Report Card grades. In the amendment, the new vouchers primarily are based on income.

In the amended legislation, existing vouchers will be maintained.

If a student attends one of 517 low-performing schools — where families within the boundaries are eligible for a voucher — they will be able to continue attending the school on a voucher scholarship through graduation.

Under the House amendment, siblings who live in the boundaries of most of the 517 low-performing schools are not allowed to start at a private school on a voucher. If, however, they are in the boundaries of the 188 of the lowest-performing public schools, the siblings will be able to apply for vouchers.

The House proposal allow families at 250 percent of the federal poverty level to apply for private school vouchers. The current income-based eligibility offers full scholarships for families at 200 percent of the poverty level.

Senate leaders already have said they would not support the House amendments, according to the Ohio School Boards Association.

BURDENED

In January, Youngstown schools administration and the board of education sent separate letters to oppose expansion of EdChoice vouchers, each stating the program is financially burdening the district.

Youngstown board member Jacqueline Adair opposes the expansion and sending its state funding to religious schools.

“I am torn,” Adair said. “My husband and I removed our two children from Youngstown City Schools and sent them to Catholic schools through high school. Parents and children should not be forced to stay in a failing district if opportunities exist for them to go to another district.

“However, most private schools are religious schools and I don’t believe the government should be involved in them,” Adair said. “We paid their tuitions. Our tax dollars went into the public school system.”

WARREN

Warren City School District this year is facing a $1.9 million deduction because of 398 EdChoice vouchers being sent to private and parochial schools, according to Superintendent Steve Chiaro.

The number of vouchers, and thus the financial losses Warren schools experienced, has increased every year in the last three years.

For the 2018-2019 school year, 330 vouchers went with students to private schools, which cost Warren schools a $1.5 million deduction from its budget. In the 2017-2018 school year, there were 293 vouchers, costing it $1.35 million in deductions.

This year’s deduction represents nearly 2 percent of its $100 million total budget.

Although there has been an overall increase in the number of EdChoice vouchers from Warren schools in recent years, Chiaro said it is not, for the most part, from losing students who have attended the city schools.

“Many never entered the school district,” Chiaro said. “Their parents never intended for their children to attend Warren schools.

“We have some real estate agents showing potential homebuyers homes and telling them they do not have to send their children to our (Warren) schools,” Chiaro said. “The number of students leaving because of the availability of EdChoice has flatlined.”

OTHER DISTRICTS

Liberty schools Superintendent Joseph Nohra said the district could lose an additional 55 to 80 voucher students because of private school enrollment, if the expansion of vouchers under current EdChoice rules are allowed to go forward without changes. That may cost the district $330,000 to $480,000.

“I don’t see how the district will survive,” Nohra said. “I don’t know how we will be able to cut that amount and not go into fiscal watch, and eventually fiscal emergency, in the next three years.”

Nohra noted the Liberty district lost more than 200 kindergarten- through fourth-grade students through EdChoice about a dozen years ago. The district has been deducted funds every year while those students who left remained at their new schools.

“It put the district in fiscal emergency, which caused the cuts of many of programs,” Nohra said. “It caused people to leave the district. I believe it may have cost millions of dollars over the 13-year period.”

Examining the record of losses from 2013 through the current school year, representing the last seven years, the district had deductions of $1.8 million. This is the final year it will have deductions taken from its budget from that original group of voucher students who left, he said.

Nohra emphasized he is not against vouchers or parents having the right to move their children to the schools of their choice.

“If the state is going to have vouchers, don’t take the money out of our children’s backpacks,” he said. “They (the state) have a massive rainy day fund. Find other places to pay for the vouchers. Don’t bleed the reserves of school districts.”

Lakeview schools Superintendent Velma Jo Taylor said the district in Cortland would not be immediately affected by EdChoice expansion, but the administration and board are following the debate.

“It is just a matter of time,” she said. “We have sent letters to express our concerns.”

Taylor said state legislators need to be measured in their approach.

“The speed and depth of changes in the program was a concern,” she said.

Boardman Schools, like Lakeview, have not been affected by academic-based EdChoice vouchers. However, district leaders are concerned if there is no change to the current system, next year it could experience a $500,000 to $900,000 deduction, depending on the number of parents of students already attending private schools who apply for vouchers.

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