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Since 1964, no candidate has won the White House without winning Ohio. Ohio is not just a battleground state; it is a bell weather. Therefore, Ohio’s educational policies should be spotlighted as well. Will Ohio’s voucher programs be promoted as solutions to the problems that plague public education?
This recent Thanksgiving holiday brought lumpy mashed potatoes (my epic failure with a crockpot recipe) and visits from my funny, intelligent cousins who traveled from eastern Ohio (Cleveland and Akron) to my home in central New York. My younger cousin, a mother of three amazing girls, has chosen to send all of her daughters to private schools through EdChoice, Ohio’s voucher system. According to her, however, she had no other option.
My cousin graciously allowed me to interview her about her decision. The words below are conversational--reflecting dialogues taking place in living rooms across the nation. The following transcript, edited for the sake of interest, anonymity, and length, demonstrates one family's struggle to find quality education in a desert of divestment.
Q: How long were your girls enrolled public schools?
A: The oldest girls attended until fifth grade and our youngest daughter attended until the until second grade. That’s when our sweet, diverse elementary school began “failing” on the state's report card. The middle school, where the oldest girls were supposed to attend, was already failing. And, I felt they would have been eaten alive at the local public secondary school, so I KNEW they were never going to go there. I picked their middle school (a Catholic school) because it was in our neighborhood. We knew a handful of families were making the same choice-- so it was a no-brainer. In retrospect, I wish I had investigated our options a little more… as a Catholic school, it was low on the list of academic and athletic performances. But it was close, (5 blocks away), small, and a better choice than the public secondary school option.
Q: Why were you dissatisfied with the public schools?
A: All of the girls were always good students: good grades, good behavior. The teachers at the public elementary school were AMAZING. But with the big girls, the behavior of other students was my biggest concern. We heard all about the fighting and bullying at the public middle school. And a lot of it was aimed at the minority students, which in this case are white kids. I was worried the peer pressure and the speed in which kids in the area were growing up.
When my youngest started at the same public elementary school that her sisters attended, I had her entire “career” planned out — down to every teacher I would request each year. Then we got an influx of refugees from Nepal. I was volunteering almost daily while my youngest was in kindergarten to help her teacher manage such diverse needs. These Nepalese students came in speaking zero English, and it was taking a lot of the teacher’s time just dealing with the new students' basic skills. And I’m talking about basic social things, not even math, social studies, reading. Our youngest daughter was doing great: performing above average in all subjects, helping as a peer mentor--being incredibly bored waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. It was in the middle of first grade, at a state testing parent meeting, when voicing my concerns about her lack of teacher attention, that the principal said: “Don’t worry about your child because I don’t. She’s going to pass all these tests and be just fine. We have to focus on the kids that won’t.” I felt like she was never going to get challenged after this. On advice from her teachers, I jumped on the opportunity for the educational choice scholarship. I felt guilty because I loved this school and this staff. But I had to put my daughter first. Her NEEDS academically were NOT being met.
Q: How does Edchoice work? Can anyone in the state apply? How is a family eligible?
A: This is probably the subject I know the least. It has been a long time since the initial application process. For renewal, all I need to do is fill out a basic form with our address, providing a current copy of a utility bill to confirm it, and designate the school that will receive my “check.” It is not a complicated process. Anyone who lives in a district with a failing school on a list can apply. You apply in January — February & receive your approval in July- August.
Q: What was the impact on the public school? Or, what was the reaction from their teachers to you?
A: So, three years after we left our beloved public elementary school, they closed. Which is very sad for me, we had intended on attending the school’s activities. Many families in our neighborhood have taken advantage of the Edchoice program because of three main reasons: the influx of refugees with different educational needs decreases in attendance and performance, and the public school buildings in desperate need of repair. I had the support of most of the teachers, and they understood why we were leaving. One even told us she would do the same.
Q: If you did not live in an urban environment, do you think you would have removed your children from the public schools?
A: So no other school districts around us qualify for Edchoice. Because they are not failing the way our public school was. Only two of the public high schools are even eligible for Edchoice monies. So, no, if we were at a suburban school (or at a thriving urban school) we would not have left.
Q: What have Catholic Schools offered your kids that you do not think they would have received in the local public schools?
A: The obvious answer is the level of academics. We transferred our youngest daughters scholarship to a different “better performing “ Catholic school, which was not challenging. Her current school is ranked sixth in the state. The older girls are also thriving at their Catholic high school.
But our decisions are about more than just academics — it’s not about religion either, we are not devout Catholics — it is about values and a sense of community. It’s about being a good person, kindness, being your best, supporting others, and growing up with others that share those same values and moral responsibilities.
My cousin currently lives in a lovely west Akron neighborhood where well-maintained homes advertise their private school enrollment with yard signs celebrating those school choices. I fully support my cousin’s decisions. If faced with failing schools, inadequate resources for both immigrant and non-immigrant students, and buildings in disrepair, I would have made the same choices for my children.
However, as a public school teacher in upstate New York, I worry about the divestment of tax dollars, support, and faith in Ohio’s urban schools. I applaud the Syracuse City School District’s use of sheltered classrooms for the growing immigrant student population. I appreciate that private school attendance in central New York is uncommon. I am confident that creating labels of "failing" schools is not a solution to the myriad of problems facing modern institutions.
I hope we can learn from the mistakes of ignoring the education of "other" people's children. I wish that my cousin, and other families like hers, were not compelled to run from failing schools. Ohio, and states like Michigan, Arizona, Florida, are the non-examples. Fortunately, there are so many examples of vibrant public schools across the United States. These exemplars need to be highlighted and used as starting points for the renewal of public schools.