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EdChoice Under the Gun: Is it saving education or stealing from our schools?

The battle lines are drawn on the state program that allows students from under-performing schools to get a voucher to attend a private school of their choice.

TOLEDO, Ohio — The most-talked about issue right now in Ohio isn't who will win the presidential primaries, but the state's controversial EdChoice voucher program. 

Public school leaders say private schools are getting preferential treatment. Private schools don't want public school systems to mess with their success.

So who's right?

The battle lines are drawn on EdChoice, the state program that allows students from under-performing schools to get a voucher to attend a private school of their choice. 

The game-changer was when state lawmakers expanded vouchers by adding hundreds more public schools to the under-performing list, forcing them to offer vouchers.

Public school leaders have pleaded with state lawmakers in recent days, to limit the reach of vouchers. 

"We lost over $70 million to EdChoice. Could you imagine what we could have done with that money? I think of a few special education classrooms I would love to fulfill there," testified Toledo Public School board member Chris Varwig last week.

"If the state is going to have a voucher program, the state should pay the fee. Not my community and my students," said Angela Dittman, a teacher at Findlay City Schools, during that same committee hearing.

But parents of kids who go somewhere new with an EdChoice voucher have emotionally pushed state lawmakers to save school choice.

And so have teachers.

Jasmine, a woman who didn't give her last name, told a committee in February, "I felt like I wanted to give my daughter a better opportunity. Because I just believe that she has it in her and right now, I see a lot of results. I'm very, very proud and I just feel like I needed to say that."

Jasmine's daughter attends St. Lawrence School in Cincinnati.

Molly Humpert, a teacher at Holy Family School in Cincinnati, added, "It would be truly tragic if 85% of our student population would no longer qualify to be served and Holy Family School would be forced to close its doors."

Most outspoken in the battle against expanding the voucher program is Washington Local Schools superintendent Kadee Anstadt.  

"It is outrageous," she told us.

Credit: WTOL 11

With EdChoice expansion, Washington Local would have eight of its schools on the EdChoice list for the 2020-21 school year, and they would have to offer vouchers. 

Anstadt didn't hold back on what happens when students leave for a private school.

"We shouldn't have to steal from a kid at Whitmer so that your kid can go to Central," Anstadt said.

When a Washington Local student uses a voucher and leaves the district, they get $4,600 towards tuition at their new private school.

It's $6,000 for a high school student.

This is money that public school districts have to come up with, even if they'll no longer be educating them.

Anstadt says EdChoice expansion could cause a $700,000 loss to Washington Local Schools.

She calls this stealing. 

"It is! It is! Because of the way the state is funding it. I'm not saying that because the way the state has set us up against each other, that's what it is! I mean literally, my kids have less, so that your kids can go to a private school," Anstadt said.

Once that money goes with the student to a private school, it's gone forever.

If the student ever comes back to the public school, the money doesn't come back with them and costs the public schools even more. 

"This is money that has never been in our budget and never will be in our budget. So I think that's what hurts so badly," Anstadt said.

Kevin Parkins agrees that changes need to be made on how public schools are funded.  

But as Head of School for Central Catholic High School, he celebrates what the vouchers are doing for many of his students.

Credit: WTOL 11

Parkins tells us there are many success stories.

"I think of a young man last year who graduated, who found himself and wants to be a pastor in his local church in town. Not Catholic. A Christian young man. He came in and without this opportunity, without EdChoice, he never would have been able to kind of refine that," said Parkins.

We asked Parkins for his reaction to Washington Local's Kadee Anstadt claiming private schools are stealing from public schools. 

Parkins' said that's not fair. 

"It's too strong because it's alluding to the fact, no, this is the state law that has been established and that's alluding to also in some ways, that our parents are doing it. Because we're not. We're not taking that money as Central Catholic High School. It's simply the parents are using that money as a choice vehicle to get to a school that they believe in," Parkins said. 

Parkins hopes public and private schools and state lawmakers can find common ground because of what's at stake. 

"We still have to play in the sandbox. So we have got to figure those things out to make sure that we're having the best education available for our kids," Parkins said.

But Anstadt says state lawmakers have to stop the EdChoice expansion.

"It should not be at the expense of a Whitmer student. Someone else should be paying. Ohio or whomever," said Anstadt.

The EdChoice expansion will kick in when applications are accepted, starting on April 1, unless there's another dramatic development with lawmakers in Columbus.

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