Beacon Journal staff writer
Ohio parents whose children attend a chronically failing public school can receive public tax dollars in the form of a voucher to spend at a private school.
The Ohio House of Representatives is considering legislation that would make those vouchers available to any parent who met income requirements, regardless of the quality of the public schools their children attend.
Opponents say an expanded voucher program would deplete district resources already stretched thin by cuts in the two-year budget and would spend money on kids who already are enrolled in private schools, thus adding to taxpayers' burden.
School Choice Ohio, an organization that advocates for vouchers, toured the state's big cities Wednesday, stopping at Summit Christian School in Cuyahoga Falls for a media event to highlight how local families would benefit from an expansion of eligibility.
One of those parents, Erin Haren, has daughters in fifth grade and in sixth grade. Her sixth-grader attends Summit Christian School this year and has a voucher because she would have attended Roswell Kent Middle School in Akron.
Last year, students who attended or would attend Roswell Kent were eligible for vouchers because the school had been rated in ''Academic Watch'' on its state report card for two out of the previous three years.
But for the past two years, Roswell Kent has received higher ratings Effective last year and Continuous Improvement the year before so Haren's fifth-grader is not eligible for a voucher.
Haren said she had no complaints about her daughters' elementary school, Firestone Park, but she worries about drug use, fighting and violence at the middle school, regardless of its improved rating.
She said she will send her younger daughter to Summit Christian even without a voucher.
''Next year, we're just going to make the sacrifices and we'll just have to pay,'' she said.
Changes to the voucher law are moving along two fronts: the two-year state budget and a separate bill that would extend vouchers to kids at all Ohio schools, not just the failing ones.
Gov. John Kasich's proposed budget raises the current limit of 14,000 vouchers to 60,000 in two years.
Michelle Francis, a lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association, said in testimony Wednesday to the Senate Finance Committee that representatives of parochial schools expressed concern they didn't have the capacity to absorb a large increase in voucher students.
''Their concern is some other private providers would pop up out there in order to take advantage of this voucher, which is a concern of ours,'' Francis said. ''There's some concern for fraudulent activity, and there's concern that those students are going to actually receive the educational services that they need.''
School Choice Ohio's executive director, Chad Aldis, told local families Wednesday the governor's budget proposal also expands the definition of failing schools to include all schools in the bottom 10 percent (not including charter schools).
Aldis estimated the new eligibility threshold for the Educational Choice Scholarship Program would expand the number of students who would qualify, but said it's not clear how the 10 percent would be decided.
''The estimates we've run, with lots of assumptions, suggest that whereas EdChoice has about 85,000 students eligible, we've calculated probably between 130,000 to 150,000 will meet this new threshold,'' Aldis said.
He said those steps are welcome, but the expansions he is advocating are part of a separate bill Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, has proposed.
Under his measure, House Bill 136, children attending the highest-rated school in their home county could get a voucher if they meet income qualifications.
A family of four with an income of less than $61,000 a year would qualify for a $4,600 voucher, based on current estimates. A family of four making up to about $100,000 still would qualify for smaller vouchers, based on a sliding scale.
''We think that any family that is attending a school that is not meeting their needs should have the ability to move to a school that will meet the child's needs, and the No. 1 limiting factor is income,'' Aldis said.
Legislators accepted a substitute bill Wednesday evening that eliminated a provision allowing students already in private school to receive vouchers on a phased-in schedule, Aldis said.
A provision for the state to bank unused voucher money in the student's name for other education expenses, including college if the voucher amount exceeded the private-school tuition, remains in the substitute bill.