An expansion of Ohio's Educational Choice Scholarship Program is detrimental to public school districts, says Whitehall City Schools Superintendent Brian Hamler.

The program provides students from designated public schools the opportunity to attend participating private schools via a voucher. Participating districts are designated in part based on the results of the Ohio Department of Education's state report cards, Hamler said.

"We think it is unfair (and) based on flawed state report cards," said Hamler, who asked Whitehall school board members Jan. 9 to adopt a resolution opposing the program, also known as EdChoice, and the state's funding cap.

The Ohio General Assembly enacted EdChoice in 2006, but its recent expansion prompted Hamler to ask the school board for a formal resolution opposing EdChoice and seeking its repeal, he said.

Board members approved the resolution 4-0. Board member Darryl Hammock Jr. was absent.

"It will hit us hard," Hamler said about changes in EdChoice that have increased the number of students eligible to apply.

The program's expansion upped the eligible grade levels from K-5 to K-12 and changed the criteria identifying which schools are considered "underachieving" and thus eligible for the program, Hamler said.

The changes increased the number of schools eligible in Ohio from about 120 to more than 1,200 next year, Hamler said.

Hamler is critical of the criteria identifying schools as underachieving because it is based on individual components of the state report card, not the overall grade, he said.

"We are seeing schools in Ohio that have an overall grade of A on the report card identified as underachieving because one of the components has a grade of D or F," Hamler said.

"The EdChoice voucher program as it currently exists presents serious constitutional issues regarding the separation of church and state and the funding of religious institutions with public tax dollars," Hamler said.

Private and parochial schools accepting students with public tax vouchers would not be required to accept all students but would be permitted to retain their selective admission policies without enforcement of other laws applicable to public schools, Hamler said.

Further, private and parochial schools are not subject to the testing standards required of public schools, so the actual performance of such schools subsidized with public tax dollars will be unknown relative to equivalent public-school evaluation standards, Hamler said.

Whitehall had 72 students who were awarded scholarships last year, Hamler said.

The district would lose about $6,000 in state funding for each student in grades 9-12 and about $4,600 for each student in K-8 who is awarded a scholarship, Hamler said.

The estimated loss of revenue to Whitehall schools during the next four years is $1.5 million, Hamler said.

The board-approved resolution "opposes and respectfully requests the repeal of the ill-conceived EdChoice voucher program of the State of Ohio" and will be sent to the Ohio General Assembly, the superintendent of public instruction and Gov. Mike DeWine.

Board also opposes continued funding caps

The resolution also opposes the continuing cap on state funding from the Ohio Department of Education.

"Because the state of Ohio can't afford to fund the formula, they developed gain caps and guarantees," Hamler said. "Districts are either fully funded and receiving the calculated amount, guaranteed to not receive less regardless of the calculated amount, or are gain-capped and receiving less than the calculated amount," Hamler said.

Because state funding is based on student enrollment, the cap places a maximum percentage increase a district can receive year to year regardless of circumstance, Hamler said.

Districts such as Whitehall that have experienced extraordinary growth in enrollment realize far less funding than they should receive based on the formula, Hamler said.

Because of the caps, districts in Ohio with similar wealth receive more than $4,000 more per student than does Whitehall -- something "discriminatory and unfair to our families," Hamler said.

If Whitehall were fully funded, it would receive nearly $9 million more each year, Hamler said.

Whitehall's state-funding allocation is especially critical because it represents 69% of all of the district's revenue -- and coupled with the revisions to EdChoice, exacerbates the district's deficit spending, Hamler said.

"This summer, we had hoped the gain cap would be addressed; however, we were surprised when the biennial budget came out with a freeze on school funding, meaning schools would receive the same amount they did for the next two years," he said.

State lawmakers weighing options

The Ohio General Assembly is weighing both issues, though it appears unlikely that state lawmakers will repeal the EdChoice program, said state Rep. Richard Brown (D-Canal Winchester).

Brown serves the 20th House District in southwestern Franklin County, composed of all or part of eight school districts, including Whitehall.

Proposed House Bill 305, also known as the Cupp-Patterson Bill for the legislators who sponsor it, would amend how districts are funded, Brown said.

House members also are mulling how to restructure the EdChoice program, Brown said.

"It's a work in progress (and) nothing is set in stone," he said.

Brown described the proposed legislation that would change the funding formula as "super complex" yet one that seeks to create "a more equitable allocation" of funds.

"I think it is a good step in the right direction that will benefit school districts," he said.

Concerning EdChoice, Brown said, he shares Hamler's concerns.

Brown said he voted against the last state budget in part because it included an additional $50 million to expand the voucher program.

"I know it hurts public schools," said Brown, adding that although he does not foresee its demise, discussions have taken place to address "the unintended consequences" of the program's expansion.

House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford) also said tweaks are needed.

"We know in this state that we have school districts that are designated as failed buildings, failed districts that aren't. We've talked about this quite a bit over this past year," Householder said. "Our failure in this state is our grade cards and our testing system. That's our biggest failure."

It is possible a short-term stopgap policy might be adopted before Feb. 1, when the application window opens for EdChoice, Brown said.

"It is our hope that the House and Senate find a fix for school funding before the next biennial budget in 2021," Hamler said.

EdChoice: Analyses show savings for taxpayers

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."

The Columbus Dispatch reporter Anna Staver contributed to this story.

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