Dozens of education leaders gathered at Butler Tech Thursday to share concerns about EdChoice vouchers, joining a chorus of public school superintendents across the state who believe the program would drain millions in funding for their districts.
“It really is taking taxpayer dollars and using those to fund vouchers for private schools,” said Hamilton City Schools Superintendent Mike Holbrook.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, the Educational Choice Scholarship Program “provides students from designated public schools the opportunity to attend participating private schools” and offers scholarship opportunities to low-income K-12 students.
But critics say the money to do that comes out of funding that would otherwise go to public school districts.
Holbrook questions the validity of the metrics state leaders use to determine whether schools qualify for vouchers. He says factors that could determine whether a school is under-performing include anything from graduation rates to student growth to K-12 literacy scores.
“It’s hard to imagine 70% of all the public school districts in the state of Ohio having at least one failing school,” Holbrook said.
Fairfield City Schools Superintendent Billy Smith agrees, saying the program has expanded to include "students from public schools that shouldn't be included."
"This year, there are 139 districts impacted. If nothing changes, that number grows to 426 districts next year,” Smith said.
Because of changes in state tests, the number of schools affected by the program will increase tenfold, meaning local districts stand to lose money after the program’s launch on Feb. 1.
"If a district is underperforming, it doesn't make any logical sense to take money away from them, because if you want them to improve you've got to provide additional resources," Holbrook said.
Holbrook is concerned the vouchers, which can be used anywhere in the state, might even encourage students here to leave the area.
“I don’t feel comfortable with having our local parents pay for a voucher that may be used outside of Hamilton, outside of Butler County — somewhere else in the state,” Holbrook said.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has also voiced concerns about the program, but supporters like Republican State Senator Bill Coley argue the voucher program gives parents a greater say in their children’s education.
“It increases parental involvement not just on the parents who decide to place kids not in public schools, but also the ones who actively made the decision to stay in the public school system,” Coley, of West Chester, said. “They had a choice — they didn’t have a financial gun to their head that said they couldn’t leave the school. They had the ability to get out.”
Coley said lawmakers are working on "amendments to the law to alleviate some financial harm that would impact" public school students, adding that EdChoice vouchers may be a net positive for communities and future school funding.
“With EdChoice, you've got all these parents moving into those neighborhoods and they're excited, happy moving into those neighborhoods. Housing values are climbing, which means the inside millage on levies are going up, and that’s more money for the school district and the kids that live in the community,” Coley said.
Open enrollment for EdChoice starts Feb. 1, and superintendents across the state are trying to make as many changes as they can before then.