Education will once again top the priority list for state Rep. Phil Robinson, D-Solon, who said that it has been a major topic of conversation among his constituents at recent town hall meetings. While some are looking for reforms to the Ohio Department of Education state report cards, others are looking for a legislative fix for the EdChoice expansion before the student application opens on Feb. 1.
Educational Choice Scholarship allows students from designated public schools the opportunity to attend participating private schools through a voucher program. Under the EdChoice program, the public school district in which the student lives would pay up to $6,000 annually for tuition at a private school, Rep. Robinson said.
With the expansion of EdChoice, which was included in the 2020-2021 biennial budget, more districts were declared to be part of the voucher program, meaning that public schools have to spend more money on vouchers for students to attend a private school.
“We get daily, if not hourly, calls and emails from superintendents, mayors, parents and teachers because of what happened,” Rep. Robinson said on Jan. 14. “Schools that are performing well are on the list and it has a devastating effect financially. They didn’t plan for this.”
Prior to the expansion of EdChoice, Rep. Robinson said that less than 300 school buildings were eligible for vouchers. Now, more than 1,200 buildings are eligible. Part of the expansion, he said, includes vouchers for students who have never attended public schools.
For example, if a student has attended a private school from kindergarten through eighth grade but there is a public high school that the student would hypothetically attend, that public school is still responsible for offering a voucher to attend a private school instead if it is on the EdChoice list.
“We want to make sure we find a solution for parents without the added expense to public schools,” said Rep. Robinson, who serves as Ranking Member on the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee.
He represents 18 communities in District 6, including Bentleyville, the Village of Chagrin Falls, Chagrin Falls Township, Gates Mills, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills and Solon. In District 6, nine of the 11 public school districts have more than 10 percent of their state education fiscal year 2019 foundation aid deducted for state scholarship programs like EdChoice, Rep. Robinson said.
The Mayfield City School District has 30.3 percent deducted, the Orange City School District has 28.9 percent of its state aid deducted, Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School District has 12.9 percent deducted and the Solon City School District has 12.7 percent deducted from their state aid, according to a release from Rep. Robinson’s office.
“EdChoice originally was one single program for the [Cleveland Metropolitan School District] and it cost taxpayers $2.9 million. It was a program that helped parents who had kids in bad schools; it gave them an opportunity to find another choice for their child. And if they didn’t have the means, it was going to help them,” Rep. Robinson said.
“Now it’s a $333.8 million program and 581 of the 610 school districts in Ohio provide some kind of voucher. That’s not what it was intended to do.”
Rep. Robinson noted that the biennial budget awarded schools $675 million in wraparound services, including medical care, mental health care, family support and mentoring, which are meant for at-risk youth to help them succeed in school. He said that the expansion of EdChoice could nullify that additional funding for wraparound services since public schools must finance more vouchers now.
“We just increased wraparound money but this can nullify that because now [the schools] have to fill another gap,” he said.
He explained that the expansion was not discussed in the House or the Senate. Rather, this provision appeared in the joint conference committee before it went to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk for his signature.
Rep. Robinson said that such provisions do not have a named sponsor when they are introduced in the joint conference committee so it is hard to tell who introduced it. State Reps. Scott Oeslager, R-North Canton, Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, and Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, sit on the committee as well as state Senators Dave Burke, R-Marysville, Sean J. O’Brien, D-Bazetta, and Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls.
Report card reform
EdChoice also ties back to the state report cards, Rep. Robinson said. The Solon City School District is consistently rated No. 1 in the state, but Parkside Elementary School is on the list to offer vouchers to its students. He said that the building is already high-performing, but did not show enough growth in one year to earn an A on the report card.
“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback that the report cards don’t reflect what’s happening in the schools,” Rep. Robinson said. “They can give misleading representations to parents and the scoring needs to be improved.”
For example, he said that a school may already earn 95 percent in any particular category and show growth of 1 percent over a year. Since the growth was only 1 percent, that may be indicated as a lack of progress or a poorly rated school on the report card. Rep. Robinson said that a school in that situation was already excellent.
“We’ll try to fix that,” he said. “What we do for EdChoice ties back to report cards. We want them to reflect what’s best throughout the state.”
If the public schools have to pay for more students to attend private schools, they may have to pass more operating levies or cut back their programming, according to Rep. Robinson. A Jan. 16 press release with House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, and Rep. Robinson listed several ways to reduce the damage caused by the EdChoice expansion. The options included restricting vouchers for A, B and most C-rated schools, ensure income eligibility for vouchers is appropriate and family eligibility must be based on a year-one minimum in an Ohio public school.
House Democrats also recommend that when determining voucher eligibility, school data from more than three years back should not be considered because some problems have been resolved. Another way to fix EdChoice is to reimburse the districts that took a hard hit in FY 2019 from the “broken” voucher system, according to the press release.
In other news, the first bill that Rep. Robinson co-sponsored, HB 4, was signed by Gov. DeWine on Jan. 15. HB 4, which was introduced with Rep. Tracy Richardson, R-Marysville, will set up the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation as a “one stop shop,” first point of contact and a resource for employers and companies to be connected with existing credential and certificate programs and vet and develop proposals.
“In Northeast Ohio alone, there are more than 3,000 high paying trade and technical jobs currently available but unfulfilled. We need to connect businesses with hard working Ohioans and training programs for these middle-class pathway jobs in order to fulfill the Ohio promise of a better life,” Rep. Robinson said in the press release. “HB 4 will help expand workforce training and certification development options for people looking for the American dream to make a better life for themselves and their children’s future.”