Youngstown Vindicator: Set high benchmarks for private schools participating in Ohio voucher program

The state’s school funding situation that more than two decades ago was declared unconstitutional by Ohio’s Supreme Court remains unresolved today for the state’s public school districts.

It was March 24, 1997, when the state’s top court ruled in the DeRolph v. State of Ohio case, declaring the state’s method of funding public education unconstitutional.

On the surface, Ohio’s school voucher program may seem like a good way to overcome this challenge — and indeed it might be. But we believe there are questions that should be answered.

Under the education policy initiative, public tax dollars may be rerouted from public schools to private schools in the form of vouchers. The plan is intended to insert competition into the “educational marketplace.”

Sen. Sandra O’Brien, R-Lenox, who represents northeast Ohio, including Trumbull, Geauga and Ashtabula counties, is a sponsor of the Parent Educational Freedom Act, Senate Bill 11, which she argues will offer the best educational opportunity for students of both public and private schools because it gives parents a right to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs.

If passed, the bill will provide $5,500 per year for students in grades K-8 and $7,500 per year for students in grades 9-12.

That’s the same amount currently provided through Ohio’s existing Ed Choice Scholarship Program, but it would expand the program to all students in Ohio.

Of course, many local public educators speak adamantly against the idea, arguing the playing fields are not level between public and private schools.

For instance, private schools often are not held to the same educational standards as public schools. Additionally, private schools have no financial accountability to taxpayers and are free to accept or deny admittance to students as they choose, including basing such decisions on gender, religion, sexuality and / or academic ability. They also may reject admissions to students with special needs.

These are all issues that deserve answers.

Whether Ohio families have the right to direct state school spending to the schools they want their children to attend, and whether that spending is unconstitutionally crossing a line into state support of religious education are questions that also deserve more legal exploration.

Now, a lawsuit is pending in Franklin County Common Pleas Court contending that Ohio is constitutionally obligated to fund one system of “common” schools and has no authority to give taxpayer dollars to private schools. It asks for a permanent injunction blocking the spending of state money on vouchers.

An op-ed written by LaBrae School District Superintendent A.J. Calderone and published earlier this year in this newspaper raised logical questions about the proposed voucher program. LaBrae is a party in the Vouchers Hurt Ohio lawsuit.

Just a few of Calderone’s sound questions included: Will private schools be subject to the same levels of accountability as local public schools? Are private school teachers properly certified at the same level as public schools? Will taxpayer funds flowing to private schools be subject to audits? Is the achievement of students taking the voucher better than their public school counterparts?

We understand both sides to this issue, and appreciate the passion that has been demonstrated in opposing viewpoints being offered. Ultimately, though, we believe both sides truly want the same end goal — fair and equitable school funding for every Ohio student undeniably entitled to equally good education.

So, with that in mind, we ask this: Why can’t state legislators and educators come together to establish state benchmarks that must be achieved for any private school that wants to be eligible to accept tax dollars in the form of educational vouchers?

Create new rules and guidelines, including raising the bar and setting new requirements much like the guidelines that govern our public school districts.

Rather than continuing to battle in court (at taxpayer expense where the biggest winners are simply the attorneys), why not put our differences aside and come to the table to find a way to settle this important issue with guidelines and benchmarks.

Such a solution would guarantee that all of Ohio’s kids are the real winners.