School leaders speak out about EdChoice programs

J. Patrick Eaken

Three local school superintendents spoke out Wednesday morning against the Ohio Department of Education’s EdChoice programs.
        They were responding to a question asked at the Eastern Maumee Bay Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the Communities breakfast at Mercy St. Charles Hospital. Public school superintendents Hal Gregory, Jason Kozina and Jim Witt stressed concerns about the program, which begins enrolling on Feb. 1.
        As Gregory said, the question “stoked the fire” following each superintendent’s report to the community about the positive things happening in their district, as well as the challenges.
        Also getting a piece in about the EdChoice program was Cardinal Stritch High School and Academy President Bill Berry.
        The Educational Choice (EdChoice) Scholarship Program offers students in grades K-12 the opportunity to attend a private school for little or no cost. Students from designated schools qualify for these scholarships. Schools get on that list by not making guidelines set on the state school report card.
        The EdChoice Expansion Program is an income-based program. It provides students in grades K-12 the opportunity to attend a private school at little or no cost if families meet federal poverty guidelines. This program is open only to students who do not qualify for the Educational Choice Scholarship.
        The EdChoice scholarship amount is $4,650 for grades K-8 and $6,000 for grades 9-12. The public school superintendents do not like the way it funds scholarships, calling it and the state report card system unfair, and are asking constituents to contact their legislators urging them to repeal or change the law.
        “I think I speak for most of the guys up here — we are EdChoice out,” Witt, Lake schools superintendent said. “I think if you talk to your local superintendent or your local board of education, contact your legislators and let them know that judging a school district on a flawed report card is not the right way to judge kids.
        “There are great things going on in schools every day. In our district four or five years ago, we had signs all over our community, as some of you know, that said, ‘Excellent with Distinction’ and we were doing great getting A’s and B’s on the report card. The next year they changed the test and now all of a sudden, we are failing. We have the same kids. We have the same teachers. So, it’s been flawed,” Witt continued.
        “Even the legislators who came up with the EdChoice program said it is flawed. You’ve got a school funding system in Ohio that has been deemed unconstitutional for 23 years and they have not fixed that. So, I think the only way it can be done is if people contact their elected officials and let them know of their displeasure.”
        Witt said his district won’t be affected much by the program, but still believes the recent expansion of the EdChoice program is wrong.
        “In our district, we don’t think that it is going to hurt us financially as much, but it is the stigma of labeling our high school and middle school as failing schools,” Witt said. “We can bring a bus over here and load all of you in it and walk you through for an hour and none of you would think that it is failing. Districts, like Washington Local, losing $800,000 is really going to affect them in a negative manner.”
        Oregon superintendent Gregory added, “It pits private versus public on a financial basis. Bill (Berry) and I have talked, right? EdChoice is simply a scholarship voucher that was the last item inserted into the state budget, and it went from like 200 schools and they are predicting like 2,000 schools next year. And it’s $4,650 for K through 8 students that goes directly out of our local dollars that we get from levies, right off our bottom line, to private schools based on those kids, and then it stays with those kids all the way through the time they graduate, and its $6,000 for high school.
        “So it has a devastating financial impact and frankly private schools are taking an advantage of a situation that is good for them. On the other hand it is bad for public schools and what is the point? What do we do? What do I have on the ballot right now? I have to go back. People are feeling tapped out,” Gregory said.
        “Washington Local is a great example. They’ve just passed a levy for the first time — they’ve gone through a lot in the last six years — if you know their leadership and their board — all of the things that have happened out there. If I pass a bond issue and an operating levy, (I’m saying), ‘Alright, our trajectory is now positive.’ EdChoice comes along, wipes out their entire operating levy they just passed. The money they thought they were collecting is now going to EdChoice. That’s just one example.
        “Oregon City Schools again is similar to Lake — we don’t worry too much about too many kids leaving. Currently we have one elementary (school), Jerusalem, and Eisenhower (Junior High) that are being quoted as low performing, but what we would like you to do is let people influence your legislators to know that you are concerned about it. The reason is there is a deadline, Feb. 1. It kicks in, so we’ve got three weeks to change something.”
Choice better
        Berry agrees that the Department of Education’s report card system is flawed, but he believes allowing parents to have a choice is better for everyone.
        “I know that how the report card as it stands is not a good reflection of how a school district actually performs. However, I take the view that choice is an indelible right, be it for home schooling, be it for public, or when people say private it’s not just Catholic schools — it’s many different types of schools.
        “I also feel that any community benefits from the choice. I also take the view, I live in Sylvania, and this is another side to the argument that has never been placed out there. Sylvania, as you know, is probably one of the highest taxed districts in this part of Northwest Ohio. Obviously, we are aware of that. I live right behind Highland Meadows (Country Club). When my daughter was coming to Cardinal Stritch there were probably about 100 children just in that little enclave. Only eight of them went to public school.
        “Now at no time did Sylvania or Lucas County say, ‘Bill, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to give you a large reduction in your property taxes.’ We get nothing. I don’t care because I made a choice. And, all we’re asking for is the choice. I couldn’t disagree with these gentlemen that there is a flaw in the mechanics. All I would ask everyone is to try and keep the emotion out of it and basically from a parental point of view look at it and say, ‘What choice would I like to make?’ All I’m saying is I fully support the mission of public schools and also whole-heartedly support the participation of the choice of private home-schooling as well.”
        Kozina, the Northwood superintendent, said, “I think that Hal made a great point — the fact that it almost pits public and private against each other. I don’t believe the school boards and superintendents of public school districts are 100 percent against school choice. This particular system that has been implemented, financially, is a very difficult situation to support because it is going to hit a lot of schools very hard, and it was thrown in at the last minute into a budget and it wasn’t properly vetted as one of our biggest concerns.
        “We’re being judged off a report card. That money is traveling to a school that is not judged in the same way with the same report card, so that is not apples to apples and that is the part that concerns us.”


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