Pro-voucher groups suing Ohio district over list of students

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Columbus (13abc, Action News) - A school district is wrongly shielding names and addresses of students from an organization that promotes options to traditional public schools, according to a lawsuit before the Ohio Supreme Court attracting interest from several statewide education groups.

Columbus-based School Choice Ohio says it has long obtained the information through public records requests to districts around Ohio. It then uses the data to alert parents to scholarships - sometimes referred to as vouchers - that poor students and others can use to attend private institutions in the state.

After providing the information in the past, Springfield city schools is now refusing to hand over the data. The Supreme Court planned a hearing Tuesday.

Springfield is improperly citing federal privacy laws as it refuses to release the information, School Choice Ohio said.

A government entity can only use a federal law to deny records if the law "actually prohibits it from doing so," according to a Jan. 15, 2015, filing by David Movius, an attorney representing School Choice Ohio. But that's not true in this case, he said.

"The Court should reject Springfield's cynical attempt to avoid competition and preserve its state funding by keeping its students and their families ignorant of their options under Ohio law," Movius said.

Up to 60,000 scholarships are available this year, worth up to $5,000 for high school students or $4,250 for those in kindergarten through eighth grade. But fewer than a third of the scholarships are actually used.

Last year, the state paid about $81 million for 18,700 students, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Lawmakers created the first such scholarship program in 1995 for students in Cleveland schools, which were then under federal court supervision.

It was later expanded to include students on the autism spectrum, students in low-rated public schools and students whose family income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

Supporters of the scholarships say they help students stuck in poor performing public schools by giving them alternatives. The scholarships also give traditional districts an incentive to improve to keep students from leaving, backers say.

Critics say the scholarships are an improper use of public funding and harm traditional public schools by draining tax dollars that could be used to fix problems in the districts.

Attorneys for Springfield, located between Dayton and Columbus, argue that the records meet an exception for the definition of public records whose disclosure is prohibited by law.

School Choice Oho is trying "to assert rights it does not possess under federal and state statutes intended to protect the privacy of students' records in an effort to obtain these records," Lawrence Barbiere and Karen Osborn, attorneys representing the school district, argued in a Jan. 30, 2015, court filing.

Ordering that the records be disclosed would also strip the district of discretion given governmental entities over records they can produce, the attorneys said.

Organizations representing school boards, school business officials and school administrators are urging the court to side with Springfield.

The case affects how federal law governing student privacy will be interpreted in Ohio and how much discretion and autonomy districts possess under state law, the groups argue.

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