EdChoice voucher reversal a struggle for Ohio families

Public school districts breathed a temporary sigh of relief when the Ohio legislature stopped a list of public school districts eligible for scholarships from expanding significantly. But some families who’d planned to send their kids to a private school now have to choose between paying themselves or sticking with a troubled public school.

 

Two thoughts keep Brian Holbrook, an emergency room nurse from the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills, awake at night: How to keep his family safe during this pandemic, and where to find the $12,000 he now needs to send his twin boys to a private high school.

 

“The stress is overwhelming,” he said.

 

The Holbrooks thought they were getting two EdChoice scholarships because Parma’s Normandy High School was on a 2019 list of schools that Ohio labeled as “under-preforming,” making district students eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend a private school. But state lawmakers cut that list by more than half as part of the coronavirus legislative package that became law last month.

 

Public school districts, which anticipate financial hits from the outbreak, breathed a temporary sigh of relief. But hundreds of parents such as the Holbrooks were left wondering what school their children will attend this fall.

 

“I think what our state legislature has done to the children of this state is horrible,” Holbrook said.

 

Traditionally, the Ohio Department of Education publishes a list of school buildings whose students can apply for EdChoice scholarships to private schools in the fall of the preceding year. And private schools, such as Holy Name

 

High School in Parma Heights, plan their financial aid deadlines around the release of that list.

 

“You had to apply for financial aid in November, end of October, I think,” Holbrook said. “One of the questions on there was: ‘Are you going to a school that qualifies for EdChoice?’ We didn’t get any other financial aid because we had to check that box.”

 

The scholarships are $6,000 annually for high school students and $4,500 for kindergartners through eighth graders.

Holbrook said he was happy with the outcome until state lawmakers started talking about shrinking the list of voucher-eligible schools.

 

For more than a decade, Ohio has offered vouchers to families in poorly performing public schools. But the list has exploded in recent years to more than 1,200 buildings — including some in high-performing districts such as Dublin and Upper Arlington.

 

“To say there is an explosion in this program is not hyperbole,” economist and school-finance consultant Howard Fleeter said in December. “If this doesn’t get unwound, I think it is significant enough in terms of the impact on the money schools get to undermine any new funding formula.”

 

The list, according to both Democrats and Republicans, has gotten out of control. State lawmakers tried to cut the list before the EdChoice portal opened in February, but they couldn’t agree on how. The Senate wanted to keep parts of the performance-based program while the House of Representatives wanted to scrap it in favor of an expanded income-based system.

 

They delayed the portal opening until April 1 and took hours of public testimony, but negotiations collapsed as the coronavirus outbreak took over both the state and national narrative.

 

“I think we’re comfortable with where we landed on vouchers,” said House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, during a meeting with reporters. “I think we certainly would have liked to come up with something, but that didn’t happen.”

 

What took place instead was essentially a freezing of the program as it stood in the fall of 2018, when the list had 517 eligible school buildings.

 

“I really appreciate the legislature understanding that now was not the time to take major steps on EdChoice,” Dublin Superintendent Todd Hoadley said. “Right now, our minds are focused on everyone’s health, and the next big issue is putting the economy back together.”

 

School districts, local governments and the state are bracing for revenue shortfalls. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine asked state agencies to submit ideas for cutting their budgets by up to 20%. Householder told local groups hoping for capital budget money to reconsider their options. And about 1 in 3 public school districts expects to see a lot less from income-based taxes.

 

That’s why public school advocates say that expanding vouchers, which are deducted from a district’s state funding, would be wrong when everything else is being cut.

 

“Our estimate for what was lost new in this school year was between $34 (million) and $38 million,” said Ohio Association of School Business Officials lobbyist Barbara Shaner. “That was just for the new vouchers that came on from last year’s expansion. Add another 700 buildings to the list, and you can imagine that cost would go up.”

 

Costs are going up for families such as the Holbrooks, though. It’s too late for most of them to get other forms of financial aid, and it might be too hard to come up with the money.

 

“So, do we pull our junior out of the private school and send him to Normandy along with his brothers?” Holbrook asked state lawmakers in February. “We want to be fair to all our children. Is it fair to keep him there and send our twins to Normandy? It has been a moral dilemma for us as parents.”

 

But Householder told reporters that last fall’s list wasn’t a promise to parents, and he likened the situation to applying for college.

 

“The portal never opened, so they were never granted those vouchers,” he said.

 

Holbrook disagreed and hopes that a lawsuit that he, other parents and a conservative group called Citizens for Community Values filed will prevail — restoring the list to the version released by the education department in November.

 

If the Ohio Supreme Court rules against Holbrook, there’s still a chance that the list quickly returns to 1,227 buildings. Ohio’s coronavirus bill lifted state testing requirements and other assessments used to determine which buildings are “under-performing.” Without legal changes, school experts believe the education department would use the same data to create a list for the 2021-2022 school year as it did for 2020-2021.

 

“It would be cleanest for all involved if the legislature would act prior to November, but we realize that may not be feasible,” Fleeter said, noting that there is a general election coming that month.

 

And that means legislators could find themselves staring at the same list.

 

astaver@dispatch.com

 

 

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