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Westerville City Schools well represented in EdChoice Voucher debate


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PHOTO CAPTION: After arriving at approximately 5 p.m. on Wednesday, February 19, this group of dedicated community members endured nine hours of other testimony before finally having their opportunity at 2:30 a.m. the next day to share with House Bill 9 Conference Committee members their personal experiences with Westerville City Schools, as well as why the EdChoice Voucher expansion is flawed in its present form. Superintendent Dr. John Kellogg and Treasurer/CFO Nicole Marshall remained with the group for the duration of the process. (From L to R, Front: Rachel Crites, Tammy Bennett, Liz Washburn, Katy Weaver. Middle: Colleen Moidu, Molly Lynch, Amy Raubenolt, Valerie Cumming. Back: Kellogg & Marshall.)

 

Westerville City School District Board of Education members, administrators, and community members have made their collective voices heard during the ongoing, statewide debate over the pending expansion of Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher program.

EdChoice is a state-sponsored initiative that provides families with money to attend a private school instead of the public school system serving their community. Eligibility for a voucher can be either income-based for families experiencing economic hardship, or based upon state report card results for the child’s public school.

As approved in the state’s latest budget, EdChoice expansion would more than double the number of voucher-eligible schools across the state, based upon state report card results, from 517 buildings this school year to 1,227 next school year. While legislators continue to debate the merits and validity of report card results used to determine voucher eligibility, additional concerns surround the fact that local tax dollars, approved by voters for their public schools, would be funneled away from communities to pay for voucher expansion.

More than a dozen individuals representing the Westerville City Schools and Westerville-area community have either testified in person before the House Bill 9 Conference Committee, provided written testimony to legislators, submitted letters to the editor, or worked to educate constituents on the negative financial impact that voucher expansion would have on our school system.

Treasurer/CFO Nicole Marshall’s testimony described how voucher expansion in its current form would simply add to the state’s underfunding of Westerville City Schools, noting that the district is not opposed to school choice, but rather the syphoning of public tax dollars to private schools. A portion of Marshall’s testimony follows:

“We received approximately $3,000 per pupil in state foundation funding during FY2019, which is $750 less per pupil than what we would have received if we had been fully funded. Another way to look at it is that we did not receive any state funding for approximately 3,000 of our 15,300 students. The most recent biennium budget, HB166, essentially froze the district’s general fund revenue at the FY2019 underfunded levels. In addition to being underfunded by the state, our district loses $4 million on an annual basis to charter schools, over and above the state funding received. Without a change to the EdChoice program we are looking at having at least another $1.2 million taken away from the students we serve. This deduction would be for students that we have never educated and have never received any state funding for. This is in addition to the approximately $4 million for charter schools. This is in addition to the already underfunded amounts of $11.5 million the district loses to the funding formula.”

Superintendent Dr. John Kellogg also informed legislators of how other unresolved policy matters will negatively interact with voucher expansion, resulting in a negative impact on school districts’ ability to educate children. Kellogg’s comments included the following observations:

“How these three current public policy positions – the report card, funding formula, and vouchers – all three of which are in limbo, interact will have a profound impact on the vision for educating Ohio's children. If left as they are today, what can we anticipate for the educational opportunities for Ohio’s children in the future? If the first two public policy issues are not addressed I submit, we can anticipate the following:

  1. The poor data being used as part of the current accountability system will continue to falsely label too many schools as ‘underperforming’ or ‘failing.’
  2. Public perceptions about public schools will be negatively and falsely influenced by the system, which leads to difficulty in earning community support.
  3. Financial resources pulled back from public schools or held back from public schools will lead to reduced opportunities for students.
  4. In addition, failing to codify a funding formula will maintain the current level of uncertainty that holds school districts back from developing reliable long-range plans intended to meet the needs of all students.

In short, the fact that these two long standing public policy issues are unresolved remains a considerable sore point in Ohio. For state leaders to move forward implementing any other public policy related to K-12 education, including Ed Choice, without first taking care of these two most important policies is, in a word, reckless.”

WCSD Board of Education members also offered their perspective on the matter through various efforts to engage state legislators and the community at-large. Portions of their testimony and stance on EdChoice Vouchers follow:

Board President Rick Vilardo: “Before even proposing this scheme, I challenge you to cease underfunding, by your own formula, many public school districts across Ohio. The formula the State currently uses prescribes the amount of funding a district should receive; yet, many districts are ‘capped,’ meaning their funding is reduced based upon the State’s perception of the local community’s financial abilities. Let’s be clear: the State’s own funding formula indicates how much financial support should be received by a district, yet the amount received by many districts, is often ‘capped’ (i.e. reduced), and now some in the legislature are considering rerouting those very public educational dollars (e.g. voted in levies for public school usage) for private school usage.

It is disingenuous, at best, to underfund (i.e. cap) many local public school districts, and simultaneously shift public money to private schools. The district in which I serve on the BOE, will lose $11,500,00 to the cap, this year alone! Public schools in Ohio are losing $148,000,000 to Ed. Choice this year alone! 90% of Ohio’s students attend public schools, and the Constitutional mandate is for ‘common’ (i.e. pubic) schools. How is this an ethical use of ‘public’ tax dollars? The legislature is underfunding their own funding formula by ‘capping’ many public-school districts, and then moving to shift public funds away from the ‘system of common schools’ they are mandated, by the Ohio Constitution, to fully support.”

Board Vice-President Vaughn Bell: “One of the reasons that I am opposed to any expansion of the EdChoice Voucher Program is because it makes performance-based vouchers available based on data that is produced by a system that is both flawed and unreliable. A second reason that I am opposed to the current expansion of EdChoice is because I see that it does nothing to address the stated problem of failing schools, so I have to say something. The EdChoice Voucher Program removes students and diverts public school funding away from buildings that have been identified as failing but does absolutely nothing to address the underlying causes that contribute to the building being a failure. There is no evidence to prove that the way you turn around a failing building is by decreasing its financial resources, redirecting some of its most talented students to private schools, and providing it with fewer social emotional resources. That’s what EdChoice does.”

Board Member Jennifer Aultman: “EdChoice eligibility continues to be measured by the state’s old method for calculating value added scores; it is not based upon improvements that HB166 made to the value-added scores on district or building report cards. Legislators approved HB166 because they concluded that the old law was unfair, so the overall grades and value-added grades based upon HB166 should be recalculated for the school years that will affect EdChoice eligibility. Another serious flaw is the fact that high school students no longer have to be enrolled in their public school district to qualify for an EdChoice voucher. This change takes money from school districts that never received state aid to educate those students to begin with. Legislators should not be enacting policy that further erodes the financial resources of the public school systems that are already underfunded because of previous legislative maneuvers.”

Board Member Tracy Davidson: “At one time, school districts were granted ‘safe harbor’ while the state implemented new report cards, testing changes, and performance standards. Safe harbor included suspending EdChoice eligibility, but now that the safe harbor has ended, improvements gained by districts during those years are no longer considered when determining EdChoice eligibility. The Ohio Department of Education should again acknowledge performance improvement during the safe harbor years and consider that data when determining EdChoice eligibility. They should also remove the K-3 Literacy measure from EdChoice eligibility criteria. This measure only reflects the progress of students who are not yet on track for meeting the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee. A small fraction of these students can trigger an entire building to become EdChoice eligible, despite the majority of third graders meeting the standard by the time they are to be promoted to fourth grade. Our district received a D on the last report card for K-3 literacy, despite 99.1 percent of our students meeting Third Grade Reading Guarantee requirements for promotion to 4th grade. Data and metrics that the state has acknowledged are flawed should not be used to drive public policy.”

Board Member Nancy Nestor-Baker: “Our supporters – our advocates for public education – have been making sure the electorate understands the negative impact of any voucher expansion. They’ve told people about how we, as a capped school district, have been receiving about $11 million less every year in state funding than we should have received from the state’s own formula. They’ve talked about how the flow of charter school funding actually takes local tax dollars away from our schools. And they’ve helped countless members of our community understand how all of these items continue to shift the burden of paying for public education to local taxpayers, as local dollars are diverted to fund things for which they were never intended, which the voters never approved. When those dollars are taken away from their voted purpose, when the state does not fund the district as its own formula says it should, when the rhetoric of ‘the dollars should follow the child’ are enacted in policy, local school districts have no choice but to adapt. There are two options: ask the taxpayers for more money or make cuts. Local tax burdens are high – and should not be made higher so that dollars can be diverted to private schools. And cuts are made in the knowledge that opportunities for children in our public schools are steadily reduced so that opportunities in private schools can be increased – in private schools that do not have to follow the same rules that are required of those whose dollars they take. Now is not the time to impair public schools even more by siphoning away their local funding. If allowed to expand and if allowed to continue its basis in flawed data, voucher expansion will be perceived as yet another example of how the state has shunned its responsibility and shifted the burden of funding education onto the backs of local taxpayers. Given the heightened public awareness surrounding this issue, perhaps now is actually the time for our legislature to examine and correct those past actions that have caused this shift to happen.”

Testimony presented on Wednesday, February 19, to the House Bill 9 Conference Committee stretched into the early morning hours of Thursday, February 20. Some community members were called to testify earlier in the proceedings, but at approximately 2:30 a.m., following nine hours of listening to the testimony of others’, the majority of community members advocating on behalf of Westerville City Schools finally received their opportunity to testify.

Whether they testified in person or submitted written testimony to legislators, the WCSD Board of Education and Administration extend their appreciation to the following individuals for their support and willingness to share with legislators their personal experiences with our schools: Tammy Bennett, Rachel Crites, Valerie Cumming, Mollie Lynch, Colleen Moidu, Cam Piatt, Amy Raubenolt, Mike Wander, Liz Washburn, and Katy Weaver.

Anyone interested in viewing all testimony provided on HB9 may do so at https://ohiochannel.org/ through the House and Senate Conference Committee link. Written testimony files can be downloaded at http://www.ohiohouse.gov/committee/conference-committee-on-h.b.-9.