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EdChoice to get upgrade

Warren district still will qualify for private school vouchers

Staff file photo / R. Michael Semple Jefferson PK-8 Elementary School third-grade teacher Christine Ulrich, right, teaches class in fall 2019. Jefferson, as well as three other elementary schools and Warren G. Harding High School, still will be eligible for EdChoice vouchers based on proposed changes to the program passed by the state Legislature.

A new plan for school vouchers that passed the Ohio House and Senate last week is expected to be signed by Gov. Mike DeWine before year’s end.

Under the proposal, the Valley’s two largest school districts will continue to lose students to parochial and private schools — as they have in the past.

That’s because school buildings within the Warren and Youngstown districts will continue to be identified as EdChoice-eligible programs.

Statewide, however, the number of buildings in which students are eligible to move from their public schools to private ones will drop to 473. That’s a big change from the more than 1,200 schools that would have been eligible in the EdChoice plan that was stopped earlier this year.

In addition, the new plan is designed to have no more than 600 EdChoice eligible schools in any given year going forward, according to state Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, the author of the legislation.

The prior EdChoice program was expected to grow to more than 1,200 schools because it was too reliant on state school report card grades, according to its critics.

A SOLUTION

“This solves the uncertainty about what schools would be EdChoice-eligible,” Huffman said. “There are middle-class families that will not be eligible for state financed EdChoice who will be able to look elsewhere for scholarships,” he added.

Eligibility under the new plan is a two-step process:

• Determining whether at least 20 percent of the student’s school district was composed of Title-I eligible students in the last three years. Title I is a federal program that provides financial assistance to educational agencies and schools with high percentages of of low-income families to ensure all children are able to meet academic standards.

• Once that is established, the school building must be ranked in the lowest 20 percent in performance index rankings on the state report card during the two prior school years. The performance index is a calculation that measures student performance on the Ohio Achievement Assessments / Ohio Graduate tests.

Local superintendents say voucher programs hurt their districts financially when students opt to transfer out.

In Trumbull County, students attending Warren City School District’s four Pre-K-8th grade buildings and Warren G. Harding High School, as well as one school in Liberty, will be eligible to apply for the voucher program based on the proposed EdChoice program, according to the Ohio School Boards Association.

In Mahoning County, students attending 12 Youngstown City School District buildings and two Campbell school buildings will be eligible to transfer out using the voucher program.

Of the 469 eligible EdChoice buildings under this program, 122 received either an overall A, B, or C grade on the 2018-19 report card, according to an OSBA release.

ALSO NEW

The plan adds 150 new buildings to the list, which were not previously on a list of eligible buildings from 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to the OSBA. Forty-three of the new buildings added are not even on the 2020-21 eligibility list.

OSBA’s Will Schwartz argues the list of schools on the voucher list should not include any buildings that have overall rating of A, B or C.

The OSBA also argues that schools that never have been on the list should not be added to the new list.

The performance index on the state report card should not be more than 20 percent.

The plan also would increase the poverty threshold to 250 percent from the current 200 percent.

The plan designates 473 school buildings in 87 public school districts as “failing.”

Students entitled to attend these schools will receive $4,650 or $6,000 in private tuition vouchers, which are paid out of school district budgets.

Campbell Schools Superintendent Matt Bowen defended the quality of education that students receive in the district if they stay within it.

“We can show with great certainty that the longer a student stays within Campbell local schools, the better they will perform,” Bowen said. “Students that stay within the district will graduate and be well prepared for college.”

Bowen said he believes when families take their children outside of the Campbell schools to send them to parochial or private schools, they are sending them to schools that are less accountable to meet minimum state standards than those attending public schools.

ADVERSE REACTION

Campbell Elementary and Memorial High schools are identified on the list of schools from which the students have an opportunity to transfer.

Bowen said the district in the 2018-2019 school year had an accountability rating of of “C,” progress component of “A” and overall gap closure of “B.” He said this is evidence that Campbell City Schools is growing all students, including those students in the lowest 20 percent achievement and students with disabilities.

Bowen said the district has lost $90,190 to students qualifying for the EdChoice voucher program.

Liberty Superintendent Andrew Pommelleo said EdChoice can be extremely detrimental for the district.

“We are not a financially solid district,” Pommelleo said. “Any program that pulls students and funding away is detrimental.”

This is Pommelleo’s first year as the superintendent in Liberty.

“We have to improve the performance of our students,” he said. “We have to help our adults to provide better instruction to students. We’re working to be better. We are increasing professional development.”

Liberty has seen the level of financial losses experienced by the district due to students leaving under the EdChoice vouchers decrease every year since 2015. In 2015, the district lost $330,180 due to transfers. In the 2020 fiscal year, the losses declined to $82,443.

Students who qualify for vouchers will remain eligible for the duration of their academic careers.

The plan contains no funding to offset the excessive increase in voucher deductions.

Youngstown Board of Education member Jackie Adair is not surprised that students attending city schools will be qualified to apply for vouchers under the new voucher system.

“Our schools are still receiving ‘F’ grades,” she said. “What we need to do is to make the necessary improvements needed to improve our state report card grades.”

The school district in 2020 lost $6,513,793 in funds from students who transferred to other schools under the current EdChoice school voucher system.

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