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School vouchers hit home

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The continuing expansion of Ohio’s educational voucher system, known as EdChoice, can be a boon or a bane depending on which side of the funding equation one falls.

While some Ohio families benefit, a growing number of the state’s school districts, including Yellow Springs, have found themselves landing in an undesirable position.

Introduced by state lawmakers in 2005 as an income-based subsidy paid by the state through the Ohio Department of Eduction, or ODE, EdChoice has expanded in recent years to allow any student attending or entering an “underperforming” public school to enroll at a qualifying private school — with the home school district carrying the subsidy cost.

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Students already attending private schools, however, do not qualify to apply.

Criteria set by the state, based on annual standardized test results, determine a school’s performance status.

For qualifying public school students seeking wider educational choices, including faith-based options, the program provides significant assistance toward private tuition — currently $4,650 a year for K–8 grades and $6,000 annually for high school students.

But for the school district paying the bill, the cost can represent a major strain on a district’s operating budget.

All Ohio taxpayers have a stake in the EdChoice discussion, in that state lawmakers decide where and how tax revenues are spent. But the issue has particular relevance locally  with the recently announced inclusion of Mills Lawn Elementary on the state’s list of low-performing schools.

The designation — which opens the door for Yellow Springs students to get money, commonly called “vouchers” and officially called “scholarship,” to attend qualifying private schools — could cost the local district tens of thousands of dollars annually, according to school leaders.

Potential costs to district

While the district’s current budget and five-year forecast do not reflect any projections about potential EdChoice-related costs, school leaders say the results could negatively affect the district’s finances.

“If 10 students decide to go … it can add up,” Interim Treasurer Tammy Emrick said in a recent interview.

At $4,650 each, the cost for 10 elementary students would reach $46,500.

The district, which has a current enrollment of 699 students, including 184 through open enrollment, has an operating budget of over $5 million.

Emrick said the Yellow Springs district’s next five-year forecast, which is typically completed in October, will likely consider some additional EdChoice-related figures, based on how many students sign up for the 2020–21 school year.

“We want to see what happens,” Emrick said.

A single local student — a kindergartener attending St. Brigid in Xenia — is accessing EdChoice funding this year. That cost is included in the purchased services category of the district budget, Emrick said.

Once granted an EdChoice voucher, students are guaranteed continued funding through their entire school career, regardless of whether the home school improves its status, or in the case of elementary school students, whether upper-level schools are on the list.

The local district would pay more than $60,000 for each EdChoice kindergartener who stays in the program, if the amounts stay at their current levels, Emrick said.

Emrick noted that the EdChoice funding differs from that of open enrollment, which provides a means for students to attend neighboring public schools.

Ohio schools are funded based on a  $6,020 per student standard, the treasurer said. After various equations based on income and other factors are applied, Yellow Springs receives $1,335.44 for each locally enrolled student.

When open enrollment students come into the district, Yellow Springs receives the full $6,020. And when they go out, the district forfeits the $1,335.44, but pays nothing. This year, 184 students are attending through open enrollment, while seven local students are going to other area districts.

If a local student enrolls in a private school through the EdChoice program, however, Yellow Springs gets no funds from the state while paying the $4,650 subsidy.

In a phone interview this week, former district Superintendent Mario Basora, who now heads Huber Heights Schools and continues to live in town with two children attending Yellow Springs Schools, said the state’s funding formula “is super problematic.”

“We don’t get full funding for Yellow Springs students; however, when a student leaves our schools, we pay the full amount.”

How we got here

In targeting schools considered to be persistently underperforming, the state Legislature over time has revised the criteria that determines underperformance, resulting in a growing list of designated schools. The latest list, released in December, showed the number set to rise from about 520 this year to more than 1,200 for the 2020–21 academic year.

Mills Lawn, however, was already on the list, added before the current school year began.

According to the ODE, the elementary school failed to meet one of six performance criteria set by the state in designating an underperforming school. That 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 identified as underperforming EdChoice schools for 2019–20.

Mills Lawn shows a D grade for both years.

Although the ODE sent an email dated March 27, 2019, informing the district of the Mills Lawn designation, school leaders say they were unaware until  October, when Superintendent Terri Holden received a followup email from the state seeking relevant paperwork. (Holden was hired  in summer 2019 after Basora took the superintendent position in Huber Heights, having announced his hiring in February.)

The original email, a copy of which was obtained by the News through a public records request, does not show the specific email addresses to which it was sent, instead appearing in a “blind” address form.

According to Yellow Springs Schools’ public records clerk, Margaret Swanson, the email went to Basora and former Treasurer Dawn Bennett. Also according to Swanson, a subsequent records search showed no communication between Basora and the board about EdChoice following the state’s email.

In a phone call this week, Basora said he  had not been aware of the email. He said he learned of Mills Lawn’s inclusion after the latest list was created as part of the state budget passed last summer. He assumed it was part of the controversial expansion that designated a number of schools generally considered high performing, including Beavercreek High School and an elementary school in Centerville.

A changing grade for Mills Lawn

Although Mills Lawn shows a D for at-risk early ready improvement in 2014, its original grade that year was a C.

Complaints from other districts at the time about changes in the test led the state to allow schools to submit additional data to improve their scores. Yellow Springs did not.

The state’s resulting retabulation lowered Mills Lawn’s standing compared to other schools, and its grade dropped to a D. But that change was apparently not immediately reflected in ODE’s public records.

According to the March 27 email, the ODE “recently learned that the letter grades … used from the 2013–14 report cards did not accurately reflect the official letter grades. … As a result, a school in your district has been designated an EdChoice school. We apologize for this late notice.”

Mills Lawn then earned higher grades in the early at-risk literacy measure the next three years, but Ohio leaders decided to ignore those scores in the wake of continuing widespread complaints about the state tests.

Going forward, a school has to get a C or higher for two approved years in the reading improvement category. In 2019, Mills Lawn had too few at-risk early readers to count, and so received no rating, or NR, from the state. The ODE told Superintendent Holden this fall that the NR will not count in Yellow Springs’ favor, the result being that Mills Lawn would stay on the EdChoice voucher list for the 2020–21 and 2021–22 school years, and possibly longer.

This week, however, ODE spokesperson Amanda Minnick wrote in an email to the News that if the 2020 score is again NR, or a C or higher, “the school would come off the list if the building was not designated under any other conditions.”

The inclusion of Mills Lawn at all on the state’s list of underperforming schools has angered local public school leaders.

“This is a serious matter,” school board President Steve Conn said in a recent interview.

School board members expressed their displeasure at their most recent regular meeting, unanimously adopting a resolution opposing the state program.

“This Board reaffirms its commitment to free accessible public schools which are adequately and equitably funded to guarantee a comparable education for ALL children, and therefore opposes and respectfully requests the repeal of the ill-conceived EdChoice voucher program of the State of Ohio,” the resolution states.

“[T]his board opposes any funding programs, vouchers or otherwise, that have the effect of diverting public tax dollars from public schools to private/parochial schools.”

Conn said Mills Lawn’s designation as an EdChoice school took the board by surprise, and he isn’t sure what else they can do besides adopting the resolution and contacting Yellow Springs’ statehouse representatives.

He said he is baffled to find the district in its current position.

“The notion that Mills Lawn is a failing school is preposterous on its face,” he said.

Conn, whose first term on the school board began January 2014, said the changes in testing and grades is frustrating.

“I’m not sure we knew it was re-graded,” he said of the board’s awareness of the 2014 scoring change.

The current consequences of the past grades were also unknown at the time, as the latest criteria was yet to be established, school leaders have said.

Conn doesn’t think using the six-year-old grade is a fair assessment, especially since the reading tests changed over that time period (although they’ve stayed the same the past two years).

“It’s apples to oranges,” he said of comparing the results over different years.

Nor does the more recent D in 2018 reflect Mills Lawn readers, Conn said.

“There’s no statistical integrity, given the sample size,” he continued.

“Given our small size, the difference could come down to three students, or two, or parents who kept their students home that day because they didn’t want their student at that age taking a standardized test.”

Basora, too, is critical of the EdChoice program, not only because schools he considers among the best are being identified as underperforming — and paying the financial cost — but also because it “segregates kids … and ultimately separates kids based on religion.”

The majority of the private schools on the state’s provider list are faith-based.

Schools that qualify

Greene County currently has six schools approved to accept vouchers: Bethlehem Lutheran School, in Fairborn;  Legacy Christian Academy and St. Brigid, both in Xenia; and Bright Beginnings, Creative World of Montessori-Beavercreek and the Dayton Islamic School, all in Beavercreek.

Six local students are attending St. Brigid this school year, according to Yellow Springs records, though just the one kindergartener is in the EdChoice program. While the other students already attending the pre-K–8 grade school are not eligible, new students would be. The Catholic school recently sent out a mailer advertising the availability of EdChoice scholarships for the 2020–21 school year.

St. Brigid’s principal, Terry Adkins, said the school on Fairground Road welcomes the EdChoice program.

“It’s a benefit,” Adkins said. “It gives families choice.”

The school, affiliated with St. Brigid Catholic Church and the Cincinnati archdiocese, currently has an enrollment of 214 students, with room for a few more students “in most classes,” Adkins said.

The local family whose child entered kindergarten there this year did not respond to a request for an interview.

According to Yellow Springs records, no other local students besides the six at St. Brigid are attending approved private schools in Greene County.

Seven schools in Clark County and 27 in Montgomery County are also approved to accept vouchers.

The Clark County schools are Catholic Central, Emmanuel Christian Academy, Guiding Shepherd Christian School, Nightingale Montessori, The Ridgewood School, Risen Christ Lutheran School and Springfield Christian.

One local student is attending the pre-K–12 grade Nightingale Montessori this school year. And while the K–8 Ridgewood doesn’t have any current Yellow Springs students, local children have attended the school in past years.

In Montgomery County, nine local students are currently attending the Miami Valley School. The pre-K–12 college preparatory school does not, however, participate in the EdChoice program.

“We don’t accept vouchers,” Erin O’Malley, executive assistant to the head of school, said this week.

The school has chosen not to administer the state’s standardized tests, which is required of provider schools, O’Malley said.

Likewise, the Yellow Springs-based Antioch School has decided against the state’s tests, according to School Manager Nathan Summers.

About 25 students living in the Yellow Springs School district typically attend the private pre-K–6 school off Corry Street each year. Twenty-two are enrolled this year.

Being approved to accept vouchers “would require a complete overhaul as a school,” Summers said in a recent phone interview.

Summers said he looked into the EdChoice program a couple of years ago, and checked in again with the most recent statewide expansion.

The sticking points for the school community are not only the requirement that students participate in taking state standardized tests, but also that the school have a principal in charge.

“We have made the conscious choice not to meet those requirements,” Summers said.

“It would be too big of a shift in our philosophy and how we’re organized,” he said, noting that the school operates democratically with staff members making decisions collectively.

Yellow Springs Treasurer Emrick said it’s impossible to predict how many current or entering Mills Lawn students might choose to seek EdChoice funds to leave the district next year.

Given typical annual enrollment in neighboring private schools that qualify for vouchers, new enrollments could number from five to 10 students without the added financial incentive of EdChoice dollars.

Statewide, according to ODE records, submitted EdChoice applications have increased from 1,062 for the 2013–14 school year (the oldest year listed in online ODE documents) to 14,597 this year. Actual participation grew from 1,045 in 2013–14 to 10,683 last year, with this year’s total not yet finalized. State legislators have set a cap of 60,000 spots.

Total, statewide payments grew from over $50 million in 2013–14 to over $93 million last year, according to ODE records.

Efforts to change legislation

Critics of the EdChoice system charge that the real story is in the dollar amounts, referring to the over $90 million going to private schools last year.

“It’s all to do with public money going into private hands,” board President Conn said.

“This is a fundamental challenge to the public education system,” he said. “No one is compelled to attend public schools, but now the public is compelled to pay for private schools.”

According to a National Public Radio report, 70% of Ohio’s 612 school districts now have at least one building where students can qualify for EdChoice vouchers.

The growth in numbers has led to an outcry from districts across Ohio calling for a change in law.

State Sen. Matt Dolan, a Republican from Chagrin Falls, has introduced an amendment to the existing legislation that says any school with an overall building grade higher than an F is not EdChoice eligible for three years, during which time the state can work on revising the criteria.

Mills Lawn’s most recent overall grade is a B.

Supporters of EdChoice, however, say that it offers more choices for Ohio’s students and families to attend schools that meet their individual needs and values. They also note that the families of children attending private schools continue to pay public school taxes.

In response to the choice argument, Conn said, “the state already has a system of choice — open enrollment.” Open enrollment, however, is between public districts, and does not include faith-based or private schools.

According to NPR, if the EdChoice program remains as is, the state will see a 381% increase over the next three years “in the number of school buildings where students qualify for vouchers.”

In the meantime, the Ohio House last week approved a delay in the application process, pushing back the opening date to April 1 while state leaders consider amending current law. The Ohio Senate is expected to weigh in this week.

St. Brigid’s Principal Adkins said he is hesitant to comment more on EdChoice until the state decides what it is going to do.

“I just hope they figure it out so families know where they stand,” Adkins said.

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