Athens City School Board President Sean Parsons traveled to Columbus Feb. 17 to protest how a performance-based state scholarship program could cause public school districts to lose money.
The EdChoice Scholarship program offers vouchers for students to transfer out of low-performing or “failing” schools into private schools. As of 2020-2021, schools that qualify for the program are chosen based on their state report card performance, but public school officials are lobbying the state legislature to change the qualifications to be based on income.
By tying the requirements for the scholarship to a school’s performance, already underfunded schools could face losing money, which Parsons spoke up against at the statehouse.
“The money would be pulled directly from the local school district's state funds,” Tom Gibbs, ACSD superintendent, said in an email. “In the past, EdChoice Vouchers have come from a pool of state money and have been income based and not tied to school performance. Additionally, students who have never attended a public school (i.e. on homeschool or already enrolled in private school) could become eligible for a voucher and take money from the local district, despite the fact that the local district may have never received money for those students.”
While there are currently no private schools in the area, an opening would cause a significant net loss for the school district, Parsons said. In Athens County, state funding for Athens schools is about $6,000 per student. Parsons gave the example that if a private school were to open and 40 students were to attend it, ACSD would lose almost a quarter of a million dollars, he said.
“It's problematic because it's already taking away more money from schools, and actually, schools are going to pay out of their margin,” Parsons said.
Public school administrators and employees are rallying for the qualifications of the program to change to be income-based rather than performance-based. This would require the state to pay for the vouchers rather than it coming out of the school’s pocket.
“Public schools are held accountable,” Parsons said. “They have open books for their finances. They are required to do state testing and report that information. School districts are rightfully required to accept every kid who is in the district, regardless of their need or ability. Private schools can self-select. There are some students that require more resources to educate and private schools can decline them for any reason — financial, philosophical . . . If they’re going to use local money for this choice, they should be held to the exact same standard as public schools. We’re not doing a real apples-to-apples comparison.”
Gibbs said the impact of the program is difficult to determine, as Athens lacks private schools. However, two would qualify under “failing schools,” he said in an email. These schools would be Athens Middle School and The Plains Elementary School.
“I don’t see the model in taking away money from a school district that is struggling, not doing well, and see that as a solution,” Parsons said. “Something’s not working. You need to invest more in it. You need to figure out what they need, and we need more services. We need smaller classroom sizes. We need better access to technology . . . We need all of these things.”
Gibbs said that generally, private schools are in favor of the qualifications being based on performance while and public schools are opposed.
“The greatest potential negative does not hit home with Athens City unless a private school opens in Athens,” Gibbs said in an email. “This would certainly provide a steady revenue source should someone decide to open a private school and would have substantial negative financial impact on the (ACSD).”
Parsons agreed that public schools are generally against the program.
“The day that I spent at the statehouse with my testimony, the majority of people, advocating, to keep this . . . They are private schools,” Parsons said. “People elect to send their kids to private schools for multiple reasons, and I understand that, and I respect that. But the people that are standing up against it are public schools, public school administrators, teachers, disability rights advocates. These types of people, they see how it's going to negatively impact them. We have over 1.7 million public school children in Ohio. It's our responsibility to educate them all the best we possibly can. Whenever the district already strapped for funding, take away even more, it's just going to make it harder to do.”