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School vouchers could take local tax dollars

An impending expansion of the number of public schools listed as underperforming in connection with a private school voucher program has alarmed districts around the state.

Will Hampton, superintendent of Marietta City Schools, said the expansion has the potential to cost the district $100,000 in the 2020-21 school year and more than double that in succeeding years.

EdChoice, styled as a scholarship program, offers students who attend public schools that are designated as “underperforming” scholarships to transfer to approved private schools. Last year, Hampton said, MCS had only one school on the underperforming list; this year, there are five, including three of the district’s four elementary schools.

“This has the potential for a significant impact,” Hampton said.

The only approved private school in the district is St. Mary Catholic School, which offers pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. Marietta City Schools treasurer Frank Antill said as of this year 115 students from the MCS district attend St. Mary.

Although the EdChoice funding is styled as a scholarship, the money comes from the state education budget for local schools. The district is charged up to $4,650 for elementary students who choose to move and up to $6,000 for high school students. For some districts, those amounts are more than the state per-student grant, which means the district not only loses its funding for the student but might lose additional amounts.

Marietta City Schools treasurer Frank Antill said the per-student state funding support for the district is $2,288, which means the district potentially could have to pay up to $2,362 for every student that transfers under the program. That amount would have to come out of local tax dollar support.

Ohio Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, is a veteran classroom teacher who represents District 95, which includes part of Marietta, and heads the House education committee. Jones said Thursday efforts are being made to modify the legislation enabling the changes, which takes effect Feb. 1.

“This has created anxiety across the state. The EdChoice program started several years ago to allow students from failing public schools to attend better institutions, but as a result of legislation enacted a couple of years ago, this has now come to fruition. We had 517 schools on the underperforming list last year, and this year we have 1,230,” he said. “There are schools that should not be on that list, they’ve changed the criteria. Those qualifiers are not accurate, based on the report card, which itself is a flawed document.”

The issue most people have with EdChoice, he said, is that it deliberately diverts public money into private schools, which are not held to the same standards.

“I’ve told everybody if you want the dollars to follow the students, that’s fine but make them meet the same standards,” he said.

The Ohio Association of Superintendents held a press conference Thursday in Zanesville, disclosing data it had gathered on the issue and calling on Ohio lawmakers to address the way EdChoice vouchers are funded.

The program cost $148 million last year, before the dramatic expansion of schools designated as underperforming. Under the new criteria, any school that has a D or F in any one of the six areas for its report card receives the designation. The approved private schools must be within the district, so although schools in several other Washington County districts are on the underperforming list, only St. Mary and St. John Central in the Fort Frye district are approved private schools. Fort Frye High School was on the list, but St. John offers education only up to eighth grade, so the district is not directly affected by the change.

The MCS schools on the underperforming list that could be affected are Harmar, Phillips and Washington elementaries and Marietta Middle School.

Molly Frye, principal at St. Mary, said EdChoice is one of an array of scholarships the school has available.

“We already have multiple families on the EdChoice programs, and if anyone comes in I’m happy to talk to them about more scholarship opportunities,” she said. As for the EdChoice expansion, she said, “I don’t know how that will affect us. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

The enrollment at St. Mary stands at 185 students, she said. Families elect St. Mary for a spectrum of reasons, she said, including faith education and small class sizes.

“It runs the gamut, everybody has different reasons,” she said. “We offer a bunch of scholarship options for both Catholic and non-Catholic students.”

Stephanie Starcher, superintendent of Fort Frye Local Schools, issued a statement at the Thursday press conference.

“It is absolutely unconstitutional for public money to be used by private schools. The EdChoice scholarship program is a blatant misuse of public dollars and needs to be stopped immediately,” she said.

The criteria being used by the program, the association said, would designate nearly 70 percent of all the school in Ohio as EdChoice eligible.

Starcher said after the press conference that local taxpayers didn’t approve the idea but it’s their money that is going into it.

“They (the EdChoice advocates) are trying to claim that they want choice, but the issue is that our local voters didn’t choose this,” she said. “If they really want choice, put it on the ballot as a referendum and see where it goes.”

Jones said there’s more involved than just the EdChoice program.

“This is the beginning of a bigger conversation about the voucher system and private education,” he said. “I think the culture now exists in Columbus to have that conversation.”

Jones said the application portal for the expanded program is scheduled to open Feb. 1.

“We’ve been working on this since before Christmas,’ he said.

Michael Kelly can be reached at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.

EdChoice scholarships

• Available to students in public schools designated as underperforming.

• Will pay up to $4,750 for elementary students and $6,000 for high school students to attend an approved private school.

• List of underperforming schools went from 517 to more than 1,200.

• All Marietta City schools except Putnam Elementary are on the list.

• St. Mary Catholic School is the only approved private school in the MCS district.

Source: Ohio Department of Education.

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