Ohio spent nearly $1B on private school vouchers. Who did they benefit?

Voucher spending increase mainly went to students already in private schools.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The state of Ohio awarded $993.7 million for families to send kids to private schools last school year, and the number has not yet been finalized. This is $383.7 million more than the year before and over $30 million more than legislative analysists predicted when lawmakers expanded the voucher program last year.

Lawmakers said universal access to the EdChoice expansion program would give more families access to a private school education. But a Dayton Daily News analysis of Ohio Department of Education data found so far, it’s largely subsidizing families already sending their kids to private schools.

The number of income-based EdChoice vouchers used in private schools in six area counties — Montgomery, Miami, Greene, Warren, Butler and Clark — jumped from 3,058 in the 2022-2023 school year to 12,637 last year.

But while voucher usage grew by 313%, enrollment at schools that accept vouchers grew by only 3.7%, to 20,142 students.

In some area schools, enrollment dropped even as voucher usage grew by hundreds of students.

The Cincinnati Archdiocese, the largest provider of private schools in the region, says an increase in enrollment from EdChoice expansion is more likely this year because last year most parents would have already decided where to send kids to school before any changes to eligibility were made.

In addition to lessening the burden of tuition for people sending their kids to private schools, voucher advocates say the expanded voucher program gives more people choice, which is a good thing regardless of how many people use it. And it does help some who otherwise may not be able to afford private school.

Nicole Zeiders had two children in West Carrollton schools. She said there was nothing bad about the district, but switched her 10-and 14-year-old sons to Bishop Leibold School in Miami Twp. for more opportunities and smaller class sizes.

She said her younger son would not have been able to attend the school without the EdChoice Expansion scholarship.

“It enabled us to send him there,” Zeiders said. “I don’t know if we would have been able to afford it otherwise. I mean maybe, but we would have had to make a lot of changes.”

But critics say the program redistributes taxpayer dollars to families who don’t need it so they can subsidize religious education.

“What’s happening here is that taxpayers are subsidizing a more wealthy crowd with tax money for vouchers,” said William Phillis is the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy for School Funding, which is currently suing the state over school vouchers.

The lawsuit says that under Ohio’s constitution, state funding going to private schools is not legal.

EdChoice voucher

Ohio has five voucher programs: the Autism scholarship, the Cleveland scholarship, Jon Peterson Special Needs scholarship, EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion. Almost 70% of the voucher spending in 2024 came from EdChoice and EdChoice Expansion.

EdChoice is open to families who live within the bounds of a school district deemed to be underperforming by the state. EdChoice Expansion is open to everyone based on household income.

Any Ohioan who makes up to 450% of the poverty line — $150,000 for a family of four — is eligible for a full EdChoice Expansion Scholarship. Ohio families who make more than that are eligible for at least 10% of the scholarship.

The scholarship amount was $6,166 for grades K–8 and $8,408 for grades 9-12 for the 2023-2024 school year, per ODEW.

To qualify before last school year, families had to make less than 250% of the federal poverty line, which was set at $75,000 for a family of four in 2023.

Ohio’s voucher spending is expected to rise again next year to a budgeted $1.05 billion. The entire state budget for Ohio for fiscal year 2024 is roughly $95 billion.

Much of the EdChoice expansion money goes to Catholic schools, who make up most of the private schools in Ohio and accept vouchers.

School choice

Beth Lawson, a spokeswoman for School Choice Ohio, said more families have been reaching out to the organization this year for more information on vouchers and their options. But she said not all of them want to switch.

“The large majority of families are super happy with their local public schools,” Lawson said.

According to Ohio Department of Education and Workforce data, in the 2022-2023 school year, 169,807 students were enrolled in private schools. In contrast, nearly 1.5 million students were enrolled in the state’s public schools.

However, while enrollment in public schools is much higher than private schools, the number of students in private schools has risen while the number of public school students has declined, according to ODEW data, and more families began enrolling their kids in private schools after 2021.

Phillis said there’s nothing to stop a group opening a private school that espouses hateful rhetoric.

“They’ve opened up Pandora’s Box with this whole universal voucher thing,” Phillis said. “What I’d call voucher puppeteers, the people behind the voucher movement, their whole goal is just to privatize public education.”

Lawson said School Choice Ohio doesn’t argue that parents should put all their kids in private or charter schools and instead says it’s about making the best choice for kids.

“I feel like more and more people are doing a good job examining what their choices are, and then making an appropriate choice and they’re not so limited because of finances,” Lawson said.

Local private schools

Many local private schools, particularly those in Montgomery and Butler counties, saw a significant increase in the number of EdChoice expansion vouchers they accepted.

Dayton Christian, a non-denominational Christian school in Miamisburg, saw both an increase in enrollment and an increase in voucher use in 2024. Enrollment at the school grew by 106 students to 946. EdChoice usage grew by 526 students to 657.

Julie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the school, said Dayton Christian’s enrollment has been growing since the 2019-2020 school year as part of a strategic initiative from the school.

“This plan included an institutional rebrand and a more focused campaign to reach families seeking an educational partner that would reinforce the values they are teaching in their homes,” Thompson said. “This marketing plan was initiated two years prior to the EdChoice Scholarship change and included messaging focused on parents’ desires to have a stronger voice in their child’s education.”

Dayton Christian’s tuition for grades K-5 is $8,935, and grades six to eight it is $9,620, Thompson said. Dayton Christian also offers preschool, which doesn’t have an associated voucher, but Thompson said has seen an increase in enrollment as well.

Thompson said the school anticipates more families enrolling in Dayton Christian this year, especially in the lower grades, and said there is still space for them.

“Our facility still has capacity for further growth, but we will need to expand our footprint in the next two years to provide new space to accommodate auxiliary programming such as physical education and chapel,” she said. “Our ability to enroll more students in the lower grades will be dependent on adding space after this school year.”

Thompson said Dayton Christian plans to announce a fundraising campaign to support this goal in the near future.

Catholic school enrollment

Catholic schools make up the majority of schools in the area that take EdChoice vouchers.

The Cincinnati archdiocese, which oversees the schools in the Dayton area, has seen a significant enrollment growth in the last three years, said Jennifer Schack, spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

“We believe that many families were attracted to Catholic education post-pandemic and have been very satisfied with their experience and have chosen to continue in our schools,” Schack said.

Some schools went from not accepting any EdChoice expansion vouchers to more than 80% of their attending students using vouchers to pay at least part of their tuition. For example, Mother Teresa Catholic School in Liberty Twp. did not have anyone using an EdChoice expansion voucher the prior year. In 2024, 89% of the student body was using an EdChoice expansion voucher.

Enrollment at the school grew by 27 students but EdChoice usage grew by 567 students.

The school did not return a request for comment.

Incarnation School in Centerville had the highest increase in EdChoice Expansion voucher usage in 2024 in the region, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of Ohio Department of Education and Workforce data.

Incarnation is one of the largest private elementary schools in the area, with 871 students recorded in the 2023-2024 school year. Incarnation lost 12 students between 2022-2023 and 2023-2024, but the number of EdChoice Expansion vouchers rose from 27 students in 2023 to 673 in 2024.

About 77% of Incarnation students attended using an EdChoice Expansion voucher in 2024, up from about 3% of students in 2023.

The school did not return a request for comment.

“During the school year Catholic schools of the archdiocese spent significant effort toward assisting families of current students to apply for the EdChoice Scholarship for the 2024-2025 school year,” Schack said. “Additionally, the Catholic Schools Office spent many months aggressively working to build awareness of the Universal EdChoice Expansion Scholarship. It is yet to be seen whether or not this legislation change, and the foundational work to assist families and build awareness, will lead to increased enrollment for the coming years.”

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