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Kasich’s school voucher plan draws praise, questions

Clark and Champaign counties have millions in education funding at stake in choice debate.Springfield superintendent says all schools should be held to same standards.

School choice options like open enrollment, vouchers and charter schools accounted for more than $20 million of education spending in Clark and Champaign counties in 2012, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Gov. John Kasich now wants to put millions more into vouchers as part of a plan that supporters say would give more students access to a private education and would give families the right to choose how and where students learn. Opponents say it could take money from already-struggling public schools while sending more kids into a system that does not follow the same rules and accountability standards.

Last year about $2.3 million in state aid went to local private schools for Springfield City School District students through the EdChoice voucher program for students attending chronically low-performing schools. Kasich has proposed expansions to that program for low-income students and for students who fail to progress in reading in kindergarten through third grade.

More than $9.3 million was exchanged between public school districts for students open enrolling to another public school district last year. Community or charter schools, both online and brick-and-mortar buildings, received about $8.7 million in state funds for students residing in Clark and Champaign counties.

Over the last 15 years, the school choice market has grown rapidly with the rise of online education and the introduction of charter schools and vouchers in Ohio. Choices are offered in higher education and healthcare and should be available in kindergarten through 12th grade too, said Kenith Britt, president of Catholic Central Schools.

“I have always been and will continue to be a firm believer that parents should have the fundamental right to choose the education that best suits the needs of their child,” he said. “That means that some of them are going to choose public schools, some of them are going to choose private schools and some of them are going to choose religious schools.”

Superintendent David Estrop of the city schools said he supports parents having a choice in their child’s education.

“I have absolutely no opposition to choice,” he said. “As long as everybody is held to the same standards, particularly around accountability … From my perspective, if any school accepts public funding from the state of Ohio, then the people of Ohio have the right to expect to know what they’re getting for their dollars, just like they do from us.”

In addition to private schools, there are many online charter schools in the state and three operating in Springfield: Springfield Prep and Fitness Academy and Springfield Academy of Excellence serve kindergarten through 8th grade, and Life Skills of Springfield is for high school students.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing for parents to have educational options for their children that service their individual child’s needs,” said Myrrha Satow, CEO of Edvantages, which runs Springfield Prep and Fitness. “School’s not necessarily a one size fits all for every child in every family, and it’s important that parents and families have options for their kids.”

Parents are drawn to Springfield Prep and Fitness’s academic results, special education program, small class sizes, daily fitness program and extended school day, she said.

“I think the most important thing is that parents have options because children are unique, they’re unique learners,” said Satow. “We’re even seeing parents who, perhaps they send one child to our school and one child to a local private school. Parents are becoming more and more educated about what they’re options are, and they’re actively seeking the right fit for their child.

Grandmother Mary Silvey has two grandchildren who have attended the Springfield City School District and Springfield Academy of Excellence before discovering the EdChoice voucher program.

“It offers an opportunity for children who have the chance to succeed in a classroom and school environment that nurtures all of their talents and looks to the resources of every individual to cultivate and bring out opportunities that they would otherwise miss,” she said.

Silvey said that her grandchildren have found success socially and in academics, athletics and music at Emmanuel Christian Academy over the last seven years that they’ve attended there.

The EdChoice vouchers of $4,250 for elementary and middle school and $5,000 for high school don’t completely cover the tuition at ECA, said Superintendent Dan Bragg, but it covers about 85 percent.

“Christian education is not just for the rich and not just for the gifted,” Bragg said. “It’s for everybody. We actually get to really practice that when the voucher program helps a certain population to be there.”

Both Britt and Bragg said the expansion of the program would provide opportunities for more kids to succeed in the school of their choice. Britt said he does have concerns about how the expansion would affect public schools.

“Doing this at the expense of reduction of funding for public schools is a concern for me as a citizen, not just as a school administrator,” he said. “As a citizen, I’m concerned about the overall quality of education in our region.”

Under the current voucher system, EdChoice and other school choice programs are funded by calculating a district’s state funding and then deducting the amount for students who are leaving for other options. Kasich’s proposal would continue funding EdChoice for students from low-performing schools or who fail to progress in reading that way but would create a new funding source for the low-income students.

About 15,000 students across the state use EdChoice vouchers.

“I’m so thankful every year when the government keeps allowing the program to be funded because it gives so many kids an opportunity that they wouldn’t have,” said Silvey, the grandmother who calls herself an “ambassador” for EdChoice. “The whole thing is about parents having a choice where to send their child to school. You used to not have that.”

Bragg agreed with Estrop’s sentiments about accountability, but Britt said he favored less regulations and strains for public schools instead of more for private schools.

“I think that the public schools are under duress because of the mandates and regulations that they are put under, so expanding that to private schools in my opinion doesn’t make sense,” said the Catholic Central president. “The entire system’s broken.”

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