Three Athens County school districts belong to advocacy groups which announced a lawsuit this week challenging the constitutionality of a state program that funds private school scholarships.

“When they take those funds out of the pot of money that’s used for public schools, it hurts public schools generally, and it hurts our ability to provide services that we know our students need,” said Federal Hocking Local School District Superintendent David Hanning. “In the short term, I think the lawsuit is one of the ways of trying to protect those public school funds.”

At the center of the lawsuit is the state’s EdChoice Scholarship Program, which according to the program’s webpage, awards students in designated public school districts scholarships to attend participating private schools instead.

The lawsuit argues the program “poses an existential threat to Ohio’s public school system” by taking money out of the pool reserved for public schools to fund private schools, which “effectively cripples the public school districts’ resources.”

The suit references the Ohio Constitution’s requirement that the Ohio General Assembly “secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.” The scholarship program, the lawsuit argues, violates this clause by creating an “‘uncommon,’ or private, system of schools unconstitutionally funded by taxpayers,” while contributing to increased segregation.

According to a press release from the advocacy group Vouchers Hurt Ohio, the lawsuit was filed in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas by many public school districts and the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding.

The Alexander, Federal Hocking and Nelsonville-York school districts belong to the coalition, which first formed in 1990, according to its website. The Nelsonville-York district is also a member of Vouchers Hurt Ohio, which formed explicitly to sue the state over the voucher program.

The three districts support these coalitions financially.

Students at buildings in four of the county’s five districts — Alexander being the exception — are designated as eligible for the scholarship program, according to the EdChoice website. Eligibility is determined by family income levels at a given school building and school performance.

While many students in the county are eligible for the program, however, there are no private schools in the county that participate, according to the EdChoice website.

“There may not be many [local private schools participating in the EdChoice Scholarship Program] today, but tomorrow there could be ten more that pop up,” said Nelsonville-York City School District Superintendent Rick Edwards. “Anything that impacts the amount of funds for the students that attend here, that’s a concern for the district.”

Hanning said the program is concerning based on its impact on public education overall.

“The voucher program does pull public funds away from public schools for private schools, and ultimately that affects the school districts in the state,” Hanning said.

The Alexander Local School District could not be reached for comment by press time.

The Athens and Trimble local school districts are not participating in the coalitions leading the lawsuit.

Athens City School District Superintendent Tom Gibbs said the district “made the decision to trust this legislative process in regards to direct funding to public schools.”

Gibbs added that the district has been active in state-level conversations around the Fair School Funding Plan, which aims to more fairly fund school districts by calculating funding on actual district expenses.

Trimble Local School District Superintendent John Hurd said the Trimble district is likewise “committed to supporting the current funding formula” through the Fair School Funding Plan.

The lawsuit over the voucher program argues, however, that “due to the ballooning effects of the EdChoice Program” in an appropriations bill enacted by the state, House Bill 110, not enough resources are available to “fully and promptly” fund the Fair School Funding Plan.

Both State Representative Jay Edwards and State Senator Frank Hoagland voted in favor of H.B. 110, a large bill which contained many provisions beyond the expansion of the EdChoice Scholarship Program.

Jay Edwards said while he believes the state should support parents in sending their children to private schools if that is their wish, he sees issues with the way the scholarship program is currently formulated.

“I think school choice overall is a good thing,” Jay Edwards said. “However, we have to make sure it doesn’t affect the public school. And we also have to make sure that the private school is being held to the same standard.”

Jay Edwards said he would like the private school voucher program to be “100% poverty based,” rather than being partially based on school performance, in part because wealthy families are able to take advantage of the current model and in part due to issues with the way performance is calculated.

The objections he raised to the current model are raised in the lawsuit against the voucher program.

However, Jay Edwards said he is “not really concerned” about the lawsuit and said those suing the state already “got a victory” in recent negotiations around the Fair School Funding Plan.

“Unfortunately, everybody wants to get 100% of what they want, and aren’t willing to negotiate that much or in good faith,” Jay Edwards said.

Rick Edwards said it is out of a duty to the students in the Nelsonville-York district that his school system supports the coalitions suing the state.

“I just believe every school fights for what they can for the students that attend their buildings,” Rick Edwards said.

Hoagland could be reached for comment by press time.

The Ohio Department of Education declined to comment for this story.

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