Westerville City School District leaders are urging local residents to contact their state legislators in opposition to the EdChoice voucher program expansion and how it would be funded.

District Superintendent John Kellogg and Nicole Marshall, the district's treasurer-chief financial officer, led a Jan. 6 public-information session at its Early Learning Center, 936 Eastwind Drive, to explain the local impacts of the upcoming expansion to Ohio's Educational Choice Scholarship program.

Marshall said she estimates the impact could cost the district between $2.5 million to $3 million annually.

Kellogg said enrollment starts Feb. 1 and once it starts, it can't be rolled back.

He said the EdChoice voucher program is a state-legislated program that provides tuition assistance to families looking to send their children to a nonpublic school.

"From there it gets very complicated in what determines if a student is eligible and how is that funded, which is the important piece," he said.

Kellogg said there are really two EdChoice programs.

"There's the income-eligible portion, which in its initial year in 2013, was open to incoming kindergartners," he said. "Then a grade level was being added a year, sequentially, until last year it was up to grade 5. And, this change in legislation, (state officials) just opened it up and went straight to K-12."

The income-eligible program is for families living at 200% below the federal poverty level.

"So if a family meets that threshold, regardless of school performance, they're eligible for an EdChoice scholarship from the state," Kellogg said. "It's intended to give people in poverty more school choice. You could be in the best school in Ohio and if you meet that threshold, you're eligible for that (tuition) voucher."

The regular program is based on school performance.

"The state ODE (Ohio Department of Education) publishes a list of designated schools based on criteria," Kellogg said.

He said the criteria have eased, increasing the number of schools that are now on the underperforming list, including schools in Westerville and across central Ohio.

"The big problem is the changes in the criteria, not only were they done in kind of a behind-closed-doors, last-minute, no-public-hearing manner, it was also done in a time period which gave school districts no opportunity to address the performance standards in time not to become (part of) the list," Kellogg said. "So, we're all functioning under the old rules, chasing the old rules and doing fine there. (State officials) change the rules and didn't give us time to catch up with the change in rules. That's really where the problems have happened."

Beginning in 2013, Kellogg said, buildings with a D or F grade for both the Performance Index component and the value-added component of the state report card were designated EdChoice schools.

Under current law, buildings are eligible if they meet only one of the following criteria:

* Overall building grade of D or F.

* Performance Index score ranking in the bottom 10% or all buildings.

* Four-year graduation rate grade of D or F.

* K-3 literacy grade of D or F.

* Building is in a district subject to an Academic Distress Commission.

"The big change that happened from the original design in FY13 to the modified ... list for next year is going from and to or," Kellogg said. "You used to have more than one standard to fall on the list. Now you just have to have to one of the standards, and the criteria have changed."

He said the criterion that affects Westerville schools the most is the improving at-risk K-3 readers standard on the state report card, which measures elementary students who are not on track to meet the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee benchmark.

"This is a progress measure," Kellogg said. "That's different than the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee score. The third-grade guarantee score is what you get at the end of third grade that determines that you met the third-grade guarantee standard."

Though some Westerville third-graders may have had a low grade for the improvement score, their actual final grade for meeting the reading guarantee by the end of third grade is everywhere from 95% to 100%, Kellogg said.

"It's hard for me to digest us as being underperforming when you have close to 100% of your third-graders meeting the ultimate benchmark they're trying to chase, rather than missing the mark on the way there," he said.

He said the district's best option is to provide value to families, so they want to stay in the Westerville schools.

For the current year, Marshall said, Westerville has 597 students who attend 29 private or parochial schools.

Twenty-three of the 29 private schools are EdChoice School providers, which means that any students residing in those attendance areas for the school buildings would technically be eligible, depending on what the state does with the grades 1-8, she said.

Marshall said the K-8 deduction is $4,650 per student and for grades 9-12 it is $6,000 per student.

"So, the estimated impact of the EdChoice voucher for Westerville City Schools is a potential between $2.5 to $3 million per year," she said. "Westerville will not receive any additional state money for these students because we are flat funded based on (fiscal year) 19 enrollment."

She said the number of EdChoice districts in FY19 was 41 (120 buildings); the number in FY20 was 164 (517 buildings); and the number for EdChoice designated for the next school year FY2021 is 423 (1,228 buildings).

"This isn't because of districts underperforming," Marshall said. "It's because of changes that legislators made to the law that designated schools as EdChoice districts."

In the state's latest budget, Marshall said, legislators essentially froze the revenue they provide to public school districts while at the same time approved revenue to be taken away from them through the EdChoice voucher expansion.

Researchers have conducted 52 analyses on the fiscal effects of private school-choice programs, according to edchoice.org. Forty-seven found these programs generated overall fiscal savings for taxpayers; four found programs were cost-neutral; and one found a Louisiana program for students with exceptional special needs generated net costs.

What each analysis has found is that public schools have some fixed costs, but most of their costs are variable, meaning costs are reduced when students leave the same way costs increase when new students enroll, according to the website.

"In our opinion, when a student leaves a school -- regardless of type -- the school should no longer have to pay to educate that student," the EdChoice website states. "When any school gains or loses students, it must adjust accordingly. ...

"The biggest question policymakers have to answer when it comes to K-12 funding is whether the money set aside to educate children should follow them to the people and places that educate them-whether that's in their district, outside their district, in a private setting, online or at home. We believe it should."

More information about the issue is available on the Our Community, Our Schools website, ocoswesterville.com.

The Columbus Dispatch reporter Anna Staver contributed to this story.