Lawmakers say there's a deal in the works to stop the impending explosion in the number of school buildings where students will be eligible for private school vouchers. But parents and students already in the EdChoice program want it to expand.
The deal would potentially change the number of buildings that are considered failing, which is set to go from 517 buildings this school year to 1,227 next school year.
That number more than doubled because, for several years, building grades weren’t counted because of changes in testing and state report cards. But now those grades are.
Under the expanded program, 70% of Ohio’s school districts have at least one building where students would qualify for EdChoice vouchers. Since districts pay up to $6,000 per voucher, this could blow big holes in some of their budgets.
The EdChoice application process opens February 1, so there isn’t time for a stand-alone bill to make changes. So an amendment to an existing bill has been sponsored by state Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls).
“All those schools that appeared on the list, most of those schools are not failing. So we would say if your overall building grade as an A, B, C or D, you are not EdChoice eligible. That would be that way for three years,” he said.
Dolan said during that time, lawmakers can make changes such as potentially dropping the A-F grading system on report cards for school buildings and districts.
The amendment also would state that incoming 9th graders at private high schools would be the only ones eligible for EdChoice vouchers if they haven’t attended public schools. The deal puts $10 million in state funds toward that stipulation.
It would also expand income-based vouchers, which the state pays for, to 250% of the federal poverty level – around $50,000 for a family of four. Dolan suggested this was a compromise with those lawmakers who wanted to expand to higher income levels, and families who expected to be eligible for EdChoice.
As that deal was circulating among lawmakers, some EdChoice families gathered for a press conference to share their concerns about changing the program.
“Faith for us is very important so without a scholarship, I really don’t know what I would do. Of course I would try my best to keep them where they are because they are accustomed to that environment, but it would be extremely difficult,” said Andrea De la Roca from Toledo, who has three kids in Catholic school.
Fifteen-year-old Joy Wilhoite goes to a Christian school in Columbus. She sees the value of her education, but doesn't want the expense of her current school to put a burden on the family's finances.
“I want my family to be happy and I don’t want my education to be a burden to them. I want it to be a flower, I want it to be a bud for them that when I bloom and grow and go to college that someday I can make an impact on other kids in the future.” Wilhoite said.
Brian Holbrook lives in Seven Hills in Northeast Ohio, but his three kids would go to Parma City Schools. With EdChoice, they go to a Catholic high school.
“The important thing is that we went without, I went with holes in my underwear because I didn’t want my wife to have to put work and put my kids into daycare. EdChoice allows me the opportunity to keep my kids together,” Holbrook said.
The group was brought to the Statehouse by the conservative Citizens for Community Values, a longtime supporter of vouchers. President Aaron Baer said the group is looking at all options, including a lawsuit, if there’s any change to the EdChoice program.
“Lawmakers still have the ability to just do the right thing, let the program go in as they promised,” Baer said. “We’re willing to work with lawmakers down the line. But to take it away right now, in the middle of the application period when parents are already starting to apply to schools and then are soon going to be applying for the EdChoice voucher, it’s highway robbery.”
Dolan said legal action can be considered by anyone, and he understands the frustration of families who may have wanted to take advantage of the EdChoice program, which he supports.
“While I feel for those particular families, the damage of saying all those schools are failing, we'll do much more harm to the state as a whole than the unfortunate few families who may not be able to get an EdChoice scholarship,” Dolan said.
The amendment would be attached to a House-passed bipartisan bill that would help with the transfer coursework between universities and establish a standard for general higher education courses.
If the EdChoice program remains as is, there will be a 381% increase over three years in the number of public school buildings where students qualify for those vouchers.