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DeWine marks six months of expanded vouchers with Cleveland school visit

DeWine speaks to a group of students at Urban Community School during a social studies class during a visit in mid-December 2023.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
DeWine speaks to a group of students at Urban Community School during a social studies class during a visit in mid-December 2023.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine visited Urban Community School in Cleveland Monday to learn more about the private school’s model of providing supportive services on top of education, roughly a half year after Ohio’s state government drastically expanded access to vouchers for private schools.

DeWine said he was impressed with Urban Community School, which has a handful of local nonprofits embedded on campus and other services nearby, plus its own early childhood education center. He said he'd like to see other private schools provide access to similar resources.

"Whenever I can go into a school and get ideas and things that we could possibly replicate in other parts of the state or other parts of the community, I'm very, very interested in that," he said.

Tom Gill, president of the school, explained the majority of students at Urban Community School receive vouchers to attend through the Cleveland Scholarship Program, which is available to anybody living in Cleveland Metropolitan School District's footprint. The state in its two-year budget approved by DeWine over the summer increased the total amount families can receive for that program, up to $8,407 per high school student and $6,165 for kindergarten-through-eighth grade students. The state also drastically increased access to the EdChoice Expansion program in that budget, allowing anybody, regardless of income, to receive at least some portion of a voucher to send their children to any private school in Ohio.

About 87% of the new applications to that program this year - about 38,700 of almost 44,200 applications - were submitted by white students, and only about 13% of the total applications came from low-income families, according to Ohio Department of Education data analyzed by Ideastream Public Media. Ohio's voucher programs have been criticized for disproportionately serving families who were already sending their students to private schools and for the majority of new applications coming from white families.

DeWine in response said he believes voucher programs are needed to ensure parents can choose the best education options for their students.

"You want to make sure that public money is being used in a proper way," he said. "The other thing you want, though, is parents to be more empowered. Parents make decision about where their child can go to. You know, if you're an affluent parent, you have every opportunity to have your child go wherever you want that child to go. If you're poor, you do not have that opportunity."

DeWine did not directly say whether he supported further accountability measures related to how schools use voucher funds. Private schools are not audited each year like public district schools and public charter schools.

"We're going to continue to look at how the vouchers are used," he said. "One of things we have to look at is, you know, at what level should they be? And if you take them up higher, you know, how do you replicate something like what we have here (at Urban Community School)?"

The majority of Urban Community School students, around 75%, come from low-income families, while roughly 70% are students of color, Gill said. During the visit, Gill touted the various community partnerships the school has, and how they benefit those students and their families. For example, refugee resettlement agency Resource Cleveland, formerly known as Refugee Response, has an office at Urban Community School. The campus is also located adjacent to a health center operated by MetroHealth, which features a Legal Aid Society of Cleveland office and pharmacy.

"We have tried to build as many resources as we can in one place because we know that's easier for kids and families," Gill said.

Gill said he was glad to have DeWine visit and said his hope is the state increases support for the childcare sector in general to provide more aid for families like those served by Urban Community School.

The majority of private schools in Ohio are affiliated with religious entities; Gill said Urban Community School is "faith-based" and was founded by the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland, but their accreditation is through the Independent School Association of the Central States.

Will DeWine Sign HB 68?

During a conversation with the press after the visit, DeWine was asked if he would sign House Bill 68, which bars gender-affirming care for minors and restricts transgender female athletes from participating in girls and women's sports.

DeWine said he'll be mulling that decision over the next few days, talking to the "best experts I can find."

"The one thing that I think is clear to me is both sides, frankly, want what is best for children," he said. "But this is a very, very contentious issue. Other states have had dealt with this issue as well. And ultimately, you know, my decision will be based on one thing, and that is what I think is in the best interest of the children who are being would be impacted by this particular law."

The mother of a 13-year-old transgender girl approached DeWine during his visit to the school and implored him to not sign the bill. She told him access to hormone blockers are key for her daughter’s health.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.