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How will private school voucher expansion impact Northeast Ohio?

The main building at St. Ignatius High School, a private Roman Catholic, Jesuit high school in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
The main building at St. Ignatius High School, a private Roman Catholic, Jesuit high school in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood.

When Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed the state budget into law Tuesday, he put into place one of the largest expansions of funding for private-school vouchers in Ohio's history.

The changes to the state’s EdChoice Expansion voucher program mean that any family is now eligible for some form of financial aid to pay for the tuition of private schools, and families earning up to 450% of the poverty line will receive the full amount: $8,407 for students in high school and $6,165 for students in lower grades.

Ohio’s Republican-led statehouse and governor’s office have steadily pumped more money into the state’s private-school voucher programs over the last decade, with voucher payments increasing steadily, from about $175 million in 2014 to an estimated $604 million this year; meanwhile,one study suggests that's led to an increase in higher-income students using the vouchers, as well as those who never attended a public school in the first place.

167,000 K-12 students attended private schools in the 2021-22 school year. That's compared to almost 1.5 million who attend traditional public schools according to Ohio Department of Education data.

Tanisha Pruitt, a state policy fellow with the nonprofit research institute Policy Matters Ohio, who studies school funding, said the expansion of vouchers is budgeted to cost the state almost $2 billion over the next two years. Policy Matters Ohio advocated against the voucher expansion in the budget.

Pruitt argued that the state needs to prioritize funding for the public education system, to fund adequate teacher salaries, busing and high-quality educational programming. Plus, when students leave their public schools to attend private schools, those public schools will see a per-student reduction in their funding during the next school year.

“What will happen is that money will go with them, which takes away from the money that is already at their traditional school,” she said.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy nonprofit that frequently advocates for increased support for private and charters schools in Ohio, applauds the expansion of the voucher program in the budget, said Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Institute.

“State lawmakers have taken historical strides forward to empower families and improve schools,” Churchill said in a statement. “With this budget in place, Ohio parents will have more quality educational options within their reach, be they district schools, public charter schools, or private schools. When parents are engaged and able to access schools aligned with their needs and expectations, children reap the benefits.”

Churchill in a follow-up email said the expansion of vouchers will open up more private school opportunities for families living in the “middle to higher-income areas of the state.”

“Under former policy, the program was quite limited (last year, somewhere around 50% of Ohio students were eligible),” he said. “Now, all families will have access to financial assistance that allows them to find a school that meets their kids' needs. That's a big step forward in terms of putting parents in the driver's seat in directing their kids' education. It will also put some more healthy pressure on traditional districts to improve, which haven't faced much competition in the past.”

However, many rural areas of the state have limited access to private schools, with those schools concentrated mostly in urban and suburban areas; Churchill argued the voucher expansion could serve to encourage more private schools to open in those areas.

Courtney Wright, director of enrollment management at Our Lady of the Elms School, a private, all-girls Catholic school in West Akron, said they have seen an increase in families using EdChoice vouchers in recent years as the state has expanded eligibility requirements for the vouchers.

“And then definitely with COVID, where people were, I think, kind of scrambling for in-person school, we did see a big growth in our enrollment,” she said.

Wright said she expected more families to choose Our Lady of the Elms with the expansion of the vouchers included in the budget. She said she’s run into some parents previously who wanted to send their children to the school, but found they weren’t eligible.

The state budget expands access to what’s known as the EdChoice Expansion Scholarships program, which traditionally has provided private-school scholarships to families based on their income. However, Ohio has several other school voucher programs, including the traditional EdChoice program, which provides scholarships to all students living within certain “low-performing” school districts, as well as the Cleveland Scholarship Program, which provides access to scholarships for all Cleveland Metropolitan School District residents.

Some private schools, like Birchwood Schools of Hawken, in Cleveland’s Bellaire-Puritas neighborhood, have not accepted EdChoice vouchers in the past.

Charles Debelak, Birchwood’s head of school, said that might change.

“Currently we only serve students with the Cleveland Scholarship Voucher but given the opportunities these budget changes are presenting, we are revisiting participation in EdChoice,” he said in an email. “We believe strongly in choice!”

Debelak said the decision not to accept EdChoice scholarships was because it “placed too many regulations on schools accepting this scholarship” previously.

The largest public-school teachers’ unions in Ohio – the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers - have voiced their opposition to the expansion of the “unaccountable” voucher programs, arguing in a statement late last month that they come at the expense of public schools and will be going to students “no matter how wealthy their family is or how their school performs.”

The state in the biennial budget did provide an increase in funding to public schools through the continued roll-out of the Fair School Funding Plan formula, which takes into account the number of low-income students and those with special needs that a district serves.

While research shows a consistent trend of private school students scoring better on tests,some researchers have found that those differences can often be attributed to difference in families' income and resources they can devote to their children, rather than quality of schooling being better.

A coalition of over 130 public school districts in Ohio has sued the state, arguing the state's private-school voucher system is unconstitutional and has led to segregation of schools.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.