EdChoice vouchers draw concern

MEETING — State Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, center left, and state Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, center right, met with local school superintendents at the Jefferson County Educational Service Center to address concerns about educational choice vouchers. -- Contributed

STEUBENVILLE — Area school superintendents had a chance to address their concerns about the impact of educational choice vouchers on their districts during a recent meeting with state legislators.

Leaders from Indian Creek, Toronto, Steubenville, Harrison Hills, Edison and Southern Local met with state Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, and state Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, at the Jefferson County Educational Service Center in December to talk about about the educational choice, or EdChoice, vouchers, which are part of a scholarship program launched in 2006 and offer private school vouchers to students in grades K-12 who are assigned to “low-performing” public schools. Participating private schools are required to accept the voucher as full tuition for students whose families are at or below 200 percent of the poverty level, and school districts –not the state — pay the costs.

The superintendents expressed concern about how their districts could lose funding to private facilities amid low indicators on state report cards, even though they have worked to meet ever-changing standards. Schools which score a D or F, including performance added for the past two years, are eligible to lose money through the voucher program. A main sticking point is that while schools are showing improvement, they could still lose thousands of dollars that could hinder education. However, there are ideas in the works to ease the situation.

JCESC Superintendent Chuck Kokiko said the issue spurred officials to contact Hoagland, who invited Jones, who is the House education committee chairman and a longtime teacher in the Harrison Hills City School District. Jones said the matter first came to his attention in the spring and he was working on an immediate fix until a permanent solution is found. Among the ideas are to make EdChoice a second option and move the appropriations date to March or April 1; remove buildings from the list if their score improves to a C-minus, unless the school receives a D or F grade in value added; and changing the grading system to meeting, exceeding or not meeting standards. Legislators are also eying a plan to set an end date for EdChoice scholarship appropriations and the student must be enrolled for an entire year to receive the funding.

“A lot of kids are people we haven’t seen in our districts,” he said. “A lot of school districts have good relationships with (private schools in their area), and it’s driving a wedge. One option would be to be put language in as an amendment to a current bill with an emergency clause. We know this is a short-term fix and will have to look at something long-term.”

He added that the state report card does not accurately account for what schools are doing, and surprisingly Steubenville’s Harding Middle School was on the list even though the district earned an ‘A’ rating.

Steubenville City School Superintendent Melinda Young questioned test scores between her district and an area private school, saying the latter was considerably lower yet it benefitted through the voucher program.

“Eighty-two percent at Steubenville are passing, but at the private school students are passing with much lower rates on third-grade math,” she commented, adding that she had difficulty finding information on the EdChoice schools. “What’s fair for me should be fair for them. If a school district gets EdChoice funding, they should have the same requirements I have.”

Indian Creek Superintendent T.C. Chappelear referred to a study by the Thomas Fordham Institute which found that only more advantaged children who were eligible used the voucher program, while they wind up doing worse than if they remained in the public school system. He said his district stood to lose a half-million dollars as a result of the current voucher requirements.

“It’s an experiment like charter schools. Our communities believe in our schools, and it is frustrating when you have legislators saying you are not doing a good job,” he added, noting improvements during the last three years at Indian Creek High School, which showed growth from an F to an A. “If you take $500,000 out of our district, it will be difficult to maintain that momentum.”

Toronto Superintendent Maureen Taggart said emphasis also was being placed upon health and wellness success and currently half of the district’s children are enrolled in the school-based health care program.

“We have to do so much more than educate children. We’re being graded on an academic report card on other services we’re providing,” she said, adding there was a significant difference with state report card results. “Our score is similar to Indian Creek’s but we’re not on the list.”

Harrison Hills Superintendent Dana Snider noted that schools are constantly facing obstacles to meet ever-evolving standards.

“I’m OK with testing because it’s set a bar for us,” said Snider. “Now that bar has been set so high that I don’t know how anyone can reach it. I like the value added because I look at the growth of the kids.”

“Every time we spend time testing, we are not spending time teaching,” Young commented. “We should not test every year; we should test in fourth and eighth grades.”

Southern Local Superintendent Tom Cunningham said students are being put into one mold even though they are not the same.

Jones responded that as a teacher, he was aware of what was happening in schools, while Hoagland interjected that the Ohio Department of Education did not appear to be included in the decision-making process.

“Let’s fix the problem and get back to the job we’re supposed to do and educate kids,” Jones replied. “I appreciate what I am hearing from you folks. It’s important to have people in that business to help make decisions. The report card has to be fixed and the report card triggers EdChoice. We have to get that thing right first. We have to meet requirements to get federal funding. We should meet the federal requirements and let the schools tell their story.”


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