An expansion of Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program, currently under consideration in the state legislature, could impact local public schools and families, allowing families who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford to send their child to a private school to do so.
Ohio’s school voucher program lets kids who either live near a school building with a low rating from the state or whose family makes less than 250% of the federal poverty line, which is set at $75,000 for a family of four in 2023, take state-funded scholarships to attend private schools.
The popularity of school vouchers has grown exponentially since the pandemic, and 35% more students are now using vouchers in Ohio than before the pandemic, according to state data.
School vouchers have become an increasingly common issue across the country, including in Ohio. Stéphane Lavertu, an Ohio State University professor who studies charter schools and vouchers in Ohio, said research in Ohio and Florida has shown that school vouchers do not hurt traditional public school students. Evidence from studies across the country also have shown voucher programs don’t benefit voucher students in terms of test scores, he said.
But parents are picking schools based on proximity, safety and values, he said.
He said polls show that increasingly, people like the idea of school choice, but most people like their public schools.
“A majority of Americans still like their traditional public schools,” Lavertu said. “That’s why universal vouchers aren’t going to drain everybody away.”
The state legislature is currently considering two separate bills: House Bill 11, also known as the Backpack Bill, and Senate Bill 11. Both would expand EdChoice eligibility to everyone in Ohio, regardless of income. The House bill would make all public, nonpublic, charter and home school students eligible for a state scholarship, funded through an education savings account.
In the Ohio budget, which passed the Ohio House this week, the legislature proposes increasing EdChoice voucher eligibility up to 450% of the federal poverty line. For a family of four, 450% of the poverty line is $135,000.
A nonpartisan group estimates that the cost of EdChoice expansion to everyone would be up to $1.13 billion, There is not an official estimate currently of the cost of expansion to 450% of the poverty line.
Those vouchers are worth up to $7,500 for high school students and up to $5,500 for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. That can be enough to cover tuition, but it depends on the school.
EdChoice is a different program than charter schools, like DECA or the STEM Regional School, which don’t take school vouchers. They do take state money, but they are free to attend.
Traditional public schools also take state dollars, but they also are typically funded through property or income taxes that people vote on.
Public school impact
In the Dayton region, the school district with the greatest number of students using EdChoice dollars is Dayton Public Schools. Nearly 3,000 students attended a private school on an EdChoice or EdChoice Expansion scholarship in 2022, while DPS’s enrollment was 11,887 students.
But the program that DPS primarily functions under is an older program that started in the early 2000s to allow students who live in districts or near school buildings with a low rating from the state to attend other schools.
The more recent EdChoice expansions in 2012 and 2021 have affected suburban districts like Huber Heights, Kettering, Xenia and Fairborn. That’s because EdChoice Expansion allows families making under 250% of the poverty line, regardless of their district, to use school vouchers.
In 2022, 153 students enrolled in EdChoice Expansion through Huber Heights, while 5,653 students were enrolled in the district, according to the Ohio Department of Education. In Kettering in 2022, 112 students were enrolled in EdChoice Expansion, while the district enrolled 7,662 students.
Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Mindy McCarty-Stewart, superintendent for Kettering schools, said the district has good schools and is regarded as a rigorous academic experience. It’s not clear right now how Kettering might be affected by an additional expansion, she said.
“The concern is about how the state would be able to fully fund the EdChoice Expansion,” McCarty-Stewart said. “We work hard to meet the needs of our students so that it would be a tough decision for our existing families to leave our district.”
Mad River schools have a mix of students who qualify for a traditional EdChoice voucher and EdChoice Expansion. Mad River spokeswoman Jenny Alexander said EdChoice doesn’t affect the district much.
“The funding is not deducted from our current funding formula so it does not have a huge impact on us,” Alexander said. “Most students who choose EdChoice have never stepped foot in the Mad River School District and have always attended private schools.”
A coalition of public schools recently sent a letter to the Ohio Statehouse urging lawmakers to fund public schools fairly, as has been promised for the last three years, before they expand EdChoice again. Huber Heights and Dayton Public Schools both signed that letter.
“As the biennial state budget is debated, Ohio legislators must prioritize investment in public schools, not increase voucher access,” the letter said. “Limiting, not increasing, the use of vouchers is crucial to the success of Ohio’s 1.6 million students. Public education is not failing, choice already exists for families, and the research is irrefutable that school vouchers do not lead to improved academic outcomes.”
Private, religious schools benefit
The schools that take vouchers around the region are often Christian schools, particularly Catholic schools.
Private schools benefiting significantly from EdChoice Expansion dollars include Legacy Christian Academy in Greene County, which enrolled 212 students in 2022 with EdChoice Expansion, St. Peter Catholic School in Huber Heights with 136 students, Cincinnati Christian Schools in Butler County with 152 students and Middletown Christian in Warren County with 142 students.
Julie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Dayton Christian School, said parents want smaller teacher-to-student ratios in lower elementary, and more transparency into what students are learning in the classroom, as well as input into what their kids are learning.
She said Dayton Christian has a plan to enroll 1,094 total students by the 2032-33 school year. She said the school’s growth in the past three years already has placed enrollment ahead of this plan, and Dayton Christian anticipates an enrollment of more than 1,050 for 2023-24.
“Individual students, not a particular school, are the real benefactor of the EdChoice Expansion program,” Thompson said. “We believe raising EdChoice Expansion eligibility to 400% of the poverty line would greatly benefit families who increasingly find it difficult to seek the best educational choice for their student.”
Jennifer Schack, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which runs 110 schools in the greater Cincinnati region including in Dayton, said the archdiocese is closely following the school voucher debate.
“We welcome any legislation that provides additional resources to families seeking Catholic schooling,” she said. “In addition, we appreciate the ongoing support of our current families and we hope that any increase in school choice is valuable for parents seeking quality educational options for their children.”
Matthew Sableski, Carroll High School principal, said families are sending their students to Carroll for several reasons. Carroll has a high number of students using traditional EdChoice dollars to attend.
“While each family makes the choice that is best for them individually, some of the most common reasons are: an education rooted in faith and moral values, academic excellence, a strong sense of community, safety and security and extracurricular opportunities,” Sableski said.
Sableski argued that expanding EdChoice will allow more families options.
“We need good public schools, and Archbishop Carroll has always supported our public school partners,” he said. “Some students thrive in an environment outside of what their local public district offers in K-12 education. Parents and guardians should have the most input in the type of education their children receive, and EdChoice expansion makes that possible for more families.”
Overall, Ohio paid more than $315 million for all EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion students in the 2021-22 school year.
Locally, the state paid 117 schools more than $40 million for 7,360 students to attend private schools in Butler, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties in the same school year.
The largest payment the state made for both EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion last school year was a total of $2.89 million, made to Chaminade-Julienne. CJ has 398 students enrolled through EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion.
The largest payment through the EdChoice Expansion program in the region was made to Legacy Christian Academy in Greene County for $876,373.75, across 161 students.
Why this expansion?
While EdChoice has become a more popular program since the pandemic started in 2020, most students in Ohio are still in public schools. A total of 57,363 children across the state used EdChoice or EdChoice Expansion dollars to attend school in the 2021-22 school year, while 1.7 million children were enrolled in school in Ohio last year.
But that 57,363 number is up from even the 2020-21 school year, when 50,241 students were enrolled. In the 2019-20 school year, 42,415 students were enrolled in both EdChoice programs across the state.
That means that since the 2019-20 school year, 14,948 more students have enrolled in EdChoice, or about a 35% increase, while at the same time the overall population of students in Ohio dropped by about 2.4%.
So far, EdChoice expansion is still less popular than the traditional EdChoice program. Proponents of expanding EdChoice again argue that most parents are going to want to keep their kids in their regular public school.
“It’s not like the sky is falling,” said Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that supports school choice. “There’s not going to be a massive exodus especially from public school systems that do well and are serving kids well.”
Churchill argued that for a family whose parents might be a teacher and a police officer, that couple may be making decent money but not enough to feel comfortable sending their kid to private school.
“Private schools work for some parents and for a lot of them it doesn’t,” Churchill said. “It’s a voluntary program. We’ll see what happens.”
Opponents of the expansion say the state should be funding public schools before they fund private schools.
“The problem is now that the school funding formula is based on enrollment, every time you take a kid out of their enrollment, you’re taking the state money with them.” said Stephen Dyer, a spokesman for Vouchers Hurt Ohio.
Dyer noted that since most kids still attend public schools, that would hurt the majority of kids in the state. Plus, Vouchers Hurt Ohio argues that taking away state money would lead to school districts needing to ask for more tax levies to pay for schools.
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