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Voucher article in Lima News

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#1 Emerson

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Posted 16 December 2011 - 01:21 PM

LIMA — State Rep. Matt Huffman says he listened to school officials and that led to his new school choice plan. But local officials aren't easing up on their complaints.

“I say it is a bad bill, a bad piece of legislation, and it should be scrapped completely,” Shawnee schools Superintendent Paul Nardini said.

“It is bad legislation to begin with, and there is nothing that can be done to it to make it palatable,” Elida schools Superintendent Don Diglia added. “This isn't about school choice. This about subsiding parochial and private education.”

Huffman has ditched House Bill 136, which already had made it through the House Education Committee. A new bill will lower income guidelines, cap the percentage of pupils per district that can get a scholarship, and limit a school's loss of state funding.

“We listened over the last several months to public school officials all over the state, including some local folks. We tried to address many of the major concerns that they had,” Huffman said. “In terms of other public school folks who have criticized previous efforts, this should be less objectionable to them.”

That doesn't seem to be the case. Nardini believes the initial bill was a ploy, saying Huffman knew the opposition would be great and that he would have to make changes.

“So he could say he tried to make changes, and then those legislators would say, ‘OK, he tried, so we will pass this,'” he said.

Under the new proposal, vouchers would be available to families with household incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $67.050 a year for a family of four. The previous cap was $95,000. Also, no more than 1 percent of a districts' enrollment could receive a scholarship.

Diglia thinks the percentage might continue to go up over time, just as with the existing state EdChoice Voucher program.

“It is just a get-your-foot-in-the-door type of thing,” said Diglia, who believes the bill would have long-term negative impact on public schools, including tough times at the polls when districts need money.

The scholarship amount would vary depending on the district. A voucher would have to be equal to the cost of the private-school tuition, up to $4,500 a year, but no more than the amount of per-pupil state aid received by the district. Pupils in lower-wealth districts getting more state aid would be eligible for the maximum amount.

More than half of Ohio's 614 school boards, including many local boards, have passed resolutions opposing House Bill 136. Lima schools Superintendent Karel Oxley suspects new resolutions in opposition to come once the new bill is released.

The new plan doesn't address the fundamental concerns of Lima schools officials, Oxley said. Those concerns include public money going to private schools that don't have to follow the same mandates.

“If you visualize the bucket of public tax dollars that everyone can access, why would we not all have to follow the same mandates to utilize the public dollars for educating kids?” she said, adding that private schools can pick and choose which pupils they take.

“We do not believe there should be a selection criteria,” she said. “We do not believe that public dollars should have any criteria for someone who wants to access an education. We are not allowed to do that as a public institution using the same dollars.”

Any voucher legislation that passes, Nardini said, would open the gates to more voucher programs. The new plan still affects the highest-achieving districts, he said.

“What sense does it make for a student at Shawnee schools, a school ranked excellent with distinction? Why should they want to go to another school?” he said.

To Huffman, it is all about giving parents a choice, regardless of a school's performance.

“This isn't about how schools are rankled, it is about what choice individual parents want to make for their child,” he said.

Huffman continues to get support from supporters of school choice.

“Thousands of Ohio families are anxiously waiting for this scholarship program so their children can finally have access to a high-quality education that best meets their learning needs,” said Jason Warner, legislative director for School Choice Ohio.

The new bill will not include a previously proposed educational savings account that would have allowed extra money to be used for other educational material or college expenses. The new bill would, over time, allow existing private school pupils to apply for scholarships.

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