A new idea in the ongoing debate over what to do with Ohio’s school voucher program emerged Friday that would let all kids who live in major metropolitan areas such as Columbus and Cincinnati apply.
“Why don’t we have a Cleveland program for Columbus, for Cincinnati, for Dayton, Toledo; all of those cities that would benefit from that,” Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said.
The Cleveland Scholarship Program, which started in 1996, offers set amounts of public dollars to all students who live inside the city limits to help them cover the cost of tuition at private schools. About 7,500 children currently use the program, according to Ohio’s Department of Education.
Huffman told reporters he believes the program revitalized parts of Cleveland because “a lot of middle-to-higher income people either stayed put or moved into those areas.”
Democrats, however, as well as a number of Republicans aren’t sure Huffman’s suggestion is a good idea.
“My problem with that is we are still picking and choosing who is going to to get money,” said Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport. “I’m here to work for all students all across this state, not just in certain areas.”
He and Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, both told The Dispatch they want a system that would put the poorest kids at the front of the line.
“We don’t want to take school choice away from anyone, but with any school district you have more affluent folks and the poorer folks,” Edwards said. “We want to help out the poorer folks not based on some flawed report card system, but based off what their income is.”
Huffman’s suggestion is the latest in a string of ideas floated by lawmakers in both chambers to solve the problems within the current voucher system.
Lawmakers are trying to determine how schools get labeled as under-performing or failing, whether to keep using those performance measures as criteria for awarding vouchers, and if local school districts should have to cover all, some or none of the cost of those scholarships.
They have until April 1 (the day the voucher application window opens) to decide.
“We’re not going to do another extension,” Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said. “If April 1 comes and goes, that list is going to get really big.”
A majority of Ohio’s state senators support a plan that freezes the list of “under-performing schools” for three years while lawmakers work to fix the way the state grades its public schools. The list is set to more than double from last year and include buildings in districts like Dublin, Worthington and Upper Arlington.
A majority of Ohio’s state representatives want to scrap the whole performance-based system and award vouchers based on financial needs. Huffman told reporters going this route wouldn’t work for him unless it included programs for Ohio’s bigger cities that have both higher costs of living and struggling public schools.
“When all you have left is the people who can’t afford to move out, you create a declining area,” said Katie Swilinski, a single mother from Toledo.
Swilinski’s son, Oliver, attends kindergarten at a private school on a performance-based voucher. She told the committee Friday that although she makes close to 400% of the federal poverty line ($69,000 for a two person household), private school tuition isn’t possible. She’s already paying about $7,200 for child care in the summer as well as before and after school.
“I drive a 14-year-old Honda Accord,” Swilinski said. “The EdChoice voucher is what’s kept me in my urban area.”