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Yellow Springs Schools— MLS added to voucher list

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Learning this fall that the Ohio Department of Education had added Mills Lawn Elementary to the list of Ohio public schools where students can get funding — commonly called “vouchers” — to attend a qualifying charter or private school, came as a surprise to Yellow Springs Superintendent Terri Holden.

Holden said she thought an ODE email seeking related paperwork was a mistake.

“Not us,” she thought, dismissing the possibility before following up with the state and learning otherwise.

The Ohio legislative initiative known as EdChoice has for the past two years significantly increased the number of designated schools that will pay for vouchers. When the program began in 2005, it targeted schools deemed as persistently underperforming.

“No one would ever describe Mills Lawn as an underperforming school,” Holden said this week after the ODE released information showing the number of identified public schools rising from about 500 this year to more than 1,200 next year.

The new list is eliciting complaints from districts across the state, a number with widely recognized high-performing schools.

Mills Lawn, however, had already been added at the beginning of this school year, Holden said.

The local district was apparently notified by email in March that Mills Lawn would carry the EdChoice designation for the 2019–20 academic year. Holden, who was hired in June and officially started Aug. 1, learned about it in October. A review of school board minutes since March don’t show the matter ever being discussed publicly.

Holden said Tuesday that she will be distributing a handout for families in the next couple of days to explain the school’s situation.

Potential financial impact

According to the superintendent, one kindergarten student has already applied for the EdChoice voucher this school year. Once accepted, students may continue at their chosen school for the rest of their school career.

The voucher amount is $4,650 per year for students in grades K–8. High school vouchers are $6,000, but don’t apply in Yellow Springs as the high school and McKinney Middle School are not on the list.

Holden said that the elementary school amount is paid by the district, not the state. If the kindergartener continues attending a private school while living in the district, Yellow Springs could end up spending nearly $66,000 on that child’s education, she said.

“How does this help schools that are underperforming?” she asked. “It’s terrible,” she added. “It’s designed to punish public schools.”

This school year, 40 local students are attending private and parochial schools in the area, though some of those students are middle and high schoolers. It’s also not clear which of those private parochial schools would qualify for the program.

The largest number of children, 22, attend the Antioch School on Corry Street; while nine attend the Miami Valley School, a K–12 preparatory school in Washington Township; six go to St. Brigid in Xenia; one attends Chaminade-Julianne (a Catholic high school) in Dayton; one attends Olney Friends School, a Quaker high school board school in eastern Ohio; and one attends Nightingale Montessori in Xenia. In addition, 17 local students attend public charter schools in the area.

Criteria for EdChoice

The ODE, in response to state legislation, has in the past couple of years created six performance criteria, not related to household income, any one of which can put a school on the EdChoice list.

In examining Mills Lawn’s data Holden identified one category responsible for changing the school’s status.

The category assesses a school’s success in improving the test scores of at-risk K-3 readers. Schools with a grade of D or F on the  2014 and 2018 state report cards were designated EdChoice, regardless of other scores or scoring circumstances.

Mills Lawn shows a D grade for both years. The school earned higher grades in 2015, 2016 and 2017, but those scores don’t count, as widespread complaints about changes in the state tests led legislators to offer what they called “Safe Harbor,” where they refrained from using the results of those three years in determining EdChoice status.

ODE spokesperson Mandy Minnich confirmed that the 2014 and 2018 at-risk K–3 reading improvement scores caused the EdChoice listing.

Holden said Mills Lawn originally got a C in 2014 in the category, but statewide complaints about that year’s reading test prompted the ODE to allow districts to submit additional data to better their scores. Holden said she assumes Yellow Springs didn’t see the need to revise its score. But after the state tabulated all the new data, Mills Lawn’s standing compared to other schools dropped, leaving the local elementary with a D for that year.

Complicating the literacy-related rating further is that schools known for having  successful reading programs, with few at-risk students, are penalized for the lack of at-risk progress, according to Holden. Yellow Springs had so few at-risk students last year, that the district received no rating, or an NR, in that category, which the state told Holden doesn’t count in the district’s favor toward changing its status. The result is that Mills Lawn will stay on the EdChoice list for the 2020–21 school year and likely longer.

“Our kids come to kindergarten reading. Why should we be penalized for that?” Holden said.

The News will look at EdChoice and its impact on Yellow Springs in more detail in a future issue of the paper.


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