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Vouchers could harm schools

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The Ohio legislature introduced a bill last spring that has the potential to change the face of public education and greatly enhance the possibilities for school choice. While HB 136 hasn’t been approved yet, and is not a ballot issue this month, local school Superintendent Mario Basora felt sufficiently opposed to the bill that would allow families to use state allocations for public schools to fund private school tuition that he traveled to Columbus in September to testify against it before the House Education Committee.

The committee passed the bill anyway, giving more weight to a law that could if passed, especially threaten small public districts such as Yellow Springs, Basora believes. The bill could also allow families with limited income who want to send their children to private schools for cultural, academic, or extra-curricular opportunities to do so.

HB 136 proposes two new scholarship programs called the Parental Choice and Taxpayer Savings (PACT) scholarship and the Special Education scholarship that would expand the current state voucher program to all school districts for use in any private institution. According to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, the PACT vouchers would be valued on a sliding scale between $2,313 and $4,626 for families with incomes of up to $61,000 through $95,000. The special education scholarships would range from $7,000 to $27,000, with the same income restrictions. All scholarship funds would be deducted from the public district in which the students using them reside. Any funds in excess of school tuition could be applied toward Ohio college tuition and expenses.

The bill would replace the current Education Choice bill that provides vouchers for students whose local districts are rated either in academic watch or academic emergency.

The potential impact on the local district is difficult to gauge because the exact number of students who live in the district but attend private schools in the area is unknown. But according to Basora, if the new voucher program drew a fabricated 20 students currently attending Yellow Springs schools to private schools and provided tuition support to a fabricated 30 students who were already attending private school, the local school district would be responsible for paying an estimated $230,000 of tuition to private schools to support local families.

Conversely, if the district attracts additional students, the local schools are not eligible for additional state funds, Basora said. That’s because due to the relative affluence of Yellow Springs, taxpayers pay more for public school students than the state does. Therefore, of the fictitious $230,000 the district could be forced to pay for private tuition, $1,900 per pupil would come from local taxes raised for Yellow Springs public schools, which according to the state are rated excellent with distinction, Basora said.

“That means the Ohio legislature would take locally raised funds (up to $1,900 per student) from Yellow Springs Schools and send it to other entities…many of which would be outside of our community,” Basora wrote as part of his testimony. “Maybe it is just me, but there is something fundamentally undemocratic about this.”

Yet parents choose to send their children to private schools for a variety of reasons, not all academic. Gina and Chris Lloyd have chosen to send their four children to St. Brigid’s and Carroll partly due to spiritual needs but also because the larger schools offered greater athletic opportunities.

And finding resources for it isn’t easy, Gina Lloyd said. Tuition for St. Brigid is $3,000 per year, and to get one child through four years at Carroll cost the family in excess of $20,000, she said. The family makes choices to support private school. Lloyd, who prefers to work part-time, started working fulltime. And they do without some of the material possessions they might otherwise like to have.

“It’s been an excellent move for us — the kids have really benefited,” Lloyd said. “But for us personally vouchers would be a huge help, even though I know it would hurt the local schools.”

Many local families send their primary school age children to the village’s only private school, the Antioch School. According to Antioch School manager M.J. Richlen, the school’s philosophy of trusting the children to pursue their own interests at their own pace of development is what draws families to the school. The majority of the school’s 56 students reside in Yellow Springs, and 15 receive financial aid to help with the almost $9,000 annual tuition and fees. Many of the school’s families make sacrifices to afford the investment they believe is necessary for their child’s growth and development, Richlen said.

Enrollment at the Antioch School is down slightly, and if the voucher program would allow more families to send their children there, “it would be wonderful,” Richlen said. “It’s a lovely little school, and a great treasure.”

While the voucher program would increase school options for families, a great many institutions that support the public education system heavily oppose it. The Ohio School Boards Association, Buckeye Association of School Administrators and Ohio Association of School Business Officials jointly testified in opposition when the bill was introduced. Five other statewide organizations later signed on, including the Ohio PTA, Ohio School Psychologists Association, Ohio Education Association, Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Alliance for a High Quality Education.

Yellow Springs School Treasurer Dawn Weller can easily see why parents who prefer an alternative to the public schools would use the voucher if it were available to them.

“Why wouldn’t they take advantage of the scholarship? They’d be foolish not to,” she said. “But the less money we get, the less quality education we can provide.”

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