Ohio may become the first state in the nation to offer publicly funded vouchers to K-3 students whose schools fail to hit the bar in reading.
“That literacy emphasis to spark eligibility is definitely a first,” said Jeff Reed, communications director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis.
Gov. John Kasich’s controversial proposed expansion of the state’s Educational Choice Scholarship program has drawn criticism from some and praise from others.
Proponents believe the EdChoice vouchers, as they are commonly known, offer more school choice, but opponents are against using public dollars to help fund private education.
Since 2006, the program has allowed students in chronically low-performing public schools to move to private or parochial schools using the vouchers. The numbers have grown from about 3,000 the first year to more than 16,000 today. The state pays about $66 million annually on EdChoice.
Lawmakers would have to approve the proposals, which include expanding the program to include low-income kindergartners and low-income first-graders.
In 2015-16, under the governor’s proposal, voucher eligibility also would extend to all students in grades K-3 in a school building that gets low marks in the early literacy measure on the new report cards. This would be tied to the new Third Grade Reading Guarantee.
“If a school consistently fails to provide their students with the basic reading skills they need to succeed in school, we want to make sure that parents have alternatives,” said Barbara Mattei-Smith, Kasich’s assistant policy director for education.
Yellow Springs Exempted Village Schools Superintendent Mario Basora opposes the expansion and will testify before a House education funding subcommittee Tuesday.
“I think it ultimately has the effect of undermining a good quality public education,” Basora said. “In an era when we keep being told the funds are low and we continually have to make cuts, I’m concerned we are taking public funds and spreading them around to private schools in this way.”
Kasich’s education reforms include $8.5 million in fiscal year 2014 and $17 million in FY15 for vouchers to students in households below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
State officials said the voucher expansion would be paid for from a separate fund and not deducted from school districts. The expansion tied to K-3 literacy would continue to financially impact those districts that lose voucher-users. The vouchers would be $4,250 for K-8 and $5,000 for 9-12.
In Springfield, 191 of the 530 students at Emmanuel Christian Academy are there on vouchers.
Dan Bragg, superintendent and high school principal, said many of those students never would have had these opportunities without vouchers.
“I think having private schools in the mix so that people can make choices — the whole free enterprise kind of mentality — is good for education,” Bragg said. “It says you need to do what you do and you need to do it well and if you don’t do it well, people are going to march to some other place.”
Most vouchers in area go to students in six districts
Nearly 3,000 students were awarded EdChoice scholarships in the Dayton area this school year, with two-thirds of them coming from Montgomery County. Another 635 were awarded in Clark County, 142 in Warren and at least 85 in Butler County.
In the Miami Valley, the existing voucher program impacts six districts with low-performing schools — Dayton Public, Trotwood-Madison, Preble Shawnee, Springfield, Middletown and Jefferson Twp.
Dayton Public Superintendent Lori Ward is concerned expansion could lead to more students leaving the district and their funding following them out the door.
The district lost $7.3 million this school year alone due to vouchers, she said. Ward said she cannot find an “educational reason” behind extending it to low-income students and tying it to early literacy doesn’t acknowledge the challenges at play beyond the schools’ efforts, such as family life.
“That implies the school district has complete ownership of that early literacy,” she said.
30 percent of students at Middletown private school use vouchers
At Middletown Christian School, 142 of the 495 students in grades K-12 are there on EdChoice scholarships. Most of those students are coming from Middletown but they do get a couple from Dayton, Superintendent Mark Spradling said.
“It has opened up an opportunity for a number of families that couldn’t afford Christian, private education. In that way, it has been a great blessing,” he said.
Spradling said because nearly 30 percent of its student body are voucher-users, that has led to a positive impact financially – more than $500,000 annually in tuition subsidies.
Charlotte Lovelace, filled out her EdChoice scholarship renewal forms on Thursday for her two daughters, Carrie, 10, a fourth grader, and Molly, 8, a second grader.
They have been attending Middletown Christian School for two years on vouchers after Carrie finished first-grade at Highview Elementary in Middletown, one of the low-rated schools.
“I wanted them to have the Christ background and to learn about God each and every day. Those things were crucially important to me,” she said.
Lovelace is not concerned about taxpayer money being used to send her kids to a private school but she knows others might be upset about that.
“I understand a lot of the concern is where the money ends up going, but the truth of the matter is the only person hurting would be the child,” she said. “If they can get a good education from a school that is not failing and the government might be able to place them there in order to achieve that, who cares who gets the money?”
One person who feels strongly about that is Joe Lacey, president of the Dayton Public school board. He opposes those public funds being used in that way.
“The main concept behind choice is competition,” he said, “but we’re not on the same playing field if not all the competitors have the same accountability.”