LIMA — Heritage Elementary School Principal Stacy Barker has a fourth-grader who cries nearly every day. The pupil doesn't want to be at school and misses friends.
The fourth-grader transferred in from St. Gerard Catholic School. The parents have already made it known that their child will only be at the school for the last nine weeks of the school year so they can apply for a school voucher to help pay for the tuition costs when the pupil enrolls back in the Catholic school system.
“The kids don't want to be here and it is a disruption,” Barker said about those who transfer into the school system for vouchers. “They are not at the same level. They are not where teachers are as far as pacing guides go and our expectations are. Teachers are trying to teach the lessons and the students are at the same place academically so they are not understanding the content and the material that is being taught.
“The parents will come in and tell you, 'We are just here for the last nine weeks for the voucher,'” she said.
Barker said she typically has to accommodate for two or three children in each class who have transferred into the school district for the last nine weeks to gain the vouchers.
Lima City School District Superintendent Jill Ackerman said these annual spring transfers occur to take advantage of vouchers. They disrupt classes at every school and the temporary move exposes the fact public schools must meet specific educational standards that private or parochial schools do not.
“Vouchers affect our school in different ways,” Ackerman said. “Of course, there is the money issue, but the most noticeable thing that happens is when they pop in right now and that is disruptive. I think it upsets people because a lot of them have never been in our schools and they have attended private schools their whole life and they are just coming over now for however many weeks and then they are leaving with a voucher for the rest of their school career.”
As of the 2013-14 school year, Lima City Schools had issued 245 total vouchers. A report shows 12 enrolled in Lima City Schools from a non-public school during spring 2013 then withdrew during the summer to take a voucher. Only two of the pupils had previously attended classes in the district.
As of the 2012-13 school year, the district issued 218 total vouchers with 13 pupils enrolling in Lima schools in the spring of 2012 then withdrew during the summer. Only one of the pupils had previously attended classes in the district.
The voucher system may not create as great a disruption, Ackerman said, if the schools from public to private, charter and home-schooling were held to the same standards.
“The only real thing I don't think is fair about private schools are not held to the same standard that we are, they don't have to follow the same mandates,” Ackerman said. “I think if the playing field was the same across the board for everybody then this probably would not sting as much. They are saying the private schools are delivering a better education but based on what?
“They should just make all the schools public entities and let those tax dollars flow instead of manipulating the system to get a free tuition or a reduced tuition,” she said. “I think they need to just change the system so we are one entity, we all follow the same rules, we are all held to the same standards — I think that would make it completely fair.”
State Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, says the intent of the voucher program was to improve the quality of education by giving parents choices regarding school options and not to be manipulated.
Huffman, who sponsored state legislation to expand the voucher system, defends the voucher system because he believes the Ohio Constitution provides for tax dollars to be used for private education. He also said the Constitution mandates the government to ensure children receive an education regardless of where or how.
“The voucher systems that are in place are pretty specific,” Huffman said. “One set of vouchers, the first Ed Choice system, are based on the school being a bad environment, failing school and I hate to use the term failing school, that would entitle you to a voucher to go to a different school, a private school. Another criteria is the condition of the child.
“The most recent and it is really the second part of the Ed Choice, is an income-based scholarship,” he said. “Essentially, if you cannot afford to go to the school of your choice, maybe a private school, because of your income then this provides some relief. It doesn't pay for all of the tuition, it does at least give some economic flexibility or opportunity to low or moderate income people.”
Huffman said the General Assembly approved the voucher system because it was just trying “to provide more opportunities and choice.” He said “when you have more choice for the consumer than the quality of the product goes up and the price of it goes down and that is what we are seeing with these various educational models.”
But even Huffman and the Toledo Roman Catholic Diocese object to parents manipulating the system.
“I think when they come in for nine weeks and leave just so you can get a voucher is really sort of a corruption of the system and I think the Toledo Diocese has told people they shouldn't be doing that,” Huffman said.
“We certainly advocate for school choice and the EdChoice concept,” Toledo Dioceses School Superintendent Chris Knight said. “We certainly don't want to see a system manipulated beyond its original intent. This type of gamesmanship is something we certainly would not support.”
Huffman disagrees with establishing a set standard for all schools and he believes through EdChoice the people ultimately hold the private and parochial schools accountable, but “having said that, the last thing we want to encourage is fly-by-night education vendors who are out to make a buck of the taxpayers. I think when those things happen you have to crack down on them and make sure they are not successful.”
Huffman credits Ackerman and her staff for doing a “tremendous job” and the report cards “attract a lot of interest,” but he feels public schools focus too much on vouchers and too little on another issue taking money from their coffers.
“There are far more children leaving the Lima City School district, about four times as many, through open enrollment to attend other public school districts than there are kids leaving through vouchers.,” Huffman said. “You can go look at the stats, there also twice as many kids who have left the Lima City School District and going to charter schools than are leaving through vouchers.”