New school vouchers competing with districts like Mad River Schools which offer STEM and trades programs not available at private schools

Private school voucher program to nearly double; some suburbs affected

The number of Ohio students who are eligible to pay for private schools with state-funded vouchers will almost double next school year because of a change in the Ohio voucher system, according to Ohio Department of Education data.

In the past four years, the only students in the Dayton region who were eligible to receive traditional state vouchers attended one Trotwood school building, one Jefferson Twp. building and 22 Dayton Public School buildings. They were eligible for what is known as the state’s EdChoice scholarship because of their home schools’ low state test scores and report card ratings.

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But the changes mean more school buildings are classified as under-performing based on the state report card, including school buildings in several suburban districts in southwest Ohio. So next fall, some students attending Miamisburg, Troy, Lebanon, Franklin, Mad River and other districts will qualify four vouchers to attend private schools, with the state paying all or most of the bill.

The 2,850 EdChoice students from Dayton Public Schools this year attend 29 different private schools via state voucher. That includes 60 students spread among five Montessori schools, 21 at the Dayton Islamic School and less than 10 each at suburban Catholic elementaries Bishop Leibold and Incarnation. In the Dayton area, Carroll, Chaminade Julienne, St. Helen, Holy Angels and Immaculate Conception schools each have 200-260 voucher students, according to state data. East Dayton Christian is the only local non-Catholic private school with more than 120 voucher students.

The voucher amount is currently up to $4,650 per year for students in grades K-8 — enough to fully cover tuition at many elementary schools — and $6,000 for high school students, leaving $3,000 to $5,000 uncovered annually at most local non-public high schools.

“About five years ago, in light of changes in standards and assessments, there were changes in the state report card system,” state school Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said this week. “With a more challenging set of standards, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that there are more schools and districts on the list.”

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DeMaria said the legislature gave school districts three years to adjust to harder standards and tests, but that time is now over. Barring changes in law, the voucher eligibility list will be updated annually in the future.

But for this fall, the changes mean the number of Ohio public school buildings where students are eligible to leave via private-school vouchers will rise from 255 to 487, and the number of school districts affected will soar from 32 to 137.

Mad River Schools Superintendent Chad Wyen called it “unfortunate” that the state designates schools as under-performing based on testing and report card results that many educators say are mainly tied to poverty.

“We have a diverse population of students and I am proud of that, but with that diversity, we also encounter the reality of an urban school district,” Wyen said.

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Mad River’s high school, Stebbins, will be on the voucher eligibility list for the first time next fall. Wyen pointed out that Stebbins is a state-designated STEM school because of its rigorous science and math curriculum, has hundreds of students earning college credit and offers career tech programs that “private schools cannot even begin to provide.”

“In all honesty, I am not concerned that we are going to lose students,” Wyen said. “We have 747 (non-resident) students who choose to open-enroll in Mad River Local Schools and many of these students are from districts who offer (state vouchers). Rather than apply for that scholarship, they choose Mad River because of our amazing educational opportunities and STEM focus.”

But some private schools are already recruiting students who are newly eligible for the vouchers. Carroll High School, the closest Catholic high school to Stebbins, recently sent mailers to at least one neighborhood in the Mad River district about the change, and posted links on its Facebook page, showing Stebbins families how they can qualify.

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Carroll Principal Matt Sableski said this growth of voucher eligibility “provides an opportunity for more families to pursue a Catholic education.”

“We have great respect for the public school districts that surround us, but we know there are families out there that would attend a Catholic high school if it was more affordable,” Sableski said. “Therefore, we are inviting families to learn more about us and decide if we are a good fit for their high school student.”

About 245 of Carroll’s current 750 students live in the Dayton Public Schools geography and attend Carroll using a state voucher. Sableski said Carroll has “room for minimal growth,” saying the school’s target enrollment is 750-800.

He also said any family considering a switch of schools should make sure it’s the right fit, both because a Catholic school may have a different culture or stricter rules, and because the voucher falls more than $3,000 short of covering high school tuition and fees.

Eligible students who want to use a voucher must apply to their target private school first. If admitted, they then apply for the EdChoice scholarship. The application period begins Feb. 1.

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Dayton Public Schools currently has 2,850 students a year who use private-school vouchers. Trotwood and Jefferson Twp. school districts report that fewer than 100 students each use vouchers to go to school elsewhere. But that could change next year — both of Jefferson’s schools will be eligible instead of just Blairwood Elementary, and Trotwood’s high school and middle school would be added to the list. The same 22 Dayton Public Schools are scheduled to be voucher-eligible as in past years.

It’s unclear how many students will leave newly eligible schools in suburban districts to attend private schools. In Troy, where Cookson and Heywood elementary schools are newly voucher-eligible, Superintendent Chris Piper said he doesn’t think there will be much of an impact.

“We conducted a parent survey recently and the results show that there is a great deal of pride and satisfaction in our schools,” Piper said. “We certainly have things to work on, but … parents know that we have amazing staff members who work hard every day to make sure our students are cared for, supported and challenged.”

There are 23,245 students this year in Ohio using traditional private-school vouchers, and another 10,735 in a separate voucher program for low-income students from any district, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Those numbers have been increasing gradually in recent years in both programs.

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That leaves room for another 26,000 students to join those programs, as the state has long agreed to fund up to 60,000 voucher students statewide. DeMaria said he’s not aware of any private schools planning to expand their buildings to attract more EdChoice voucher students.

DeMaria said the state has embraced the idea of giving families options for their students, especially where there home school “has persistent under-performance.” But he said he doesn’t expect a “massive migration” of students from one school to another, pointing out that school switches can be very disruptive and should be taken seriously.

“People make decisions about where to go to school for any number of reasons,” DeMaria said, citing safety, friends, caring teachers and student motivation. “I sent my kids to a city of Columbus school when I knew the school report card there wasn’t particularly good, because I liked the program and the principal and the staff and so on. And they did fine. I don’t think people will see some huge increase (in voucher participation).”

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