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School voucher use has surged in Ohio. But private school enrollment isn’t rising with it

Students at Indian Creek High School attend social studies class on a spring day in Wintersville. The high school's district has seen a surge in school voucher use.
Kendall Crawford
/
Ohio Newsroom
Students at Indian Creek High School attend social studies class on a spring day in Wintersville. The high school's district has seen a surge in school voucher use.

As students mill around Indian Creek High School’s cafeteria, Superintendent T.C. Chappelear greets them with a smile, stopping to chat, complimenting one on his performance in the school play.

His small school district outside of Steubenville has seen a 154% increase in use of Ohio’s EdChoice Expansion vouchers, private school scholarships open to any Ohio family.

The surge is even more dramatic in suburban areas around the state: It shot up 674% in one central Ohio district; 536% in Sylviana, near Toledo; and a district outside of Cincinnati tops the list with more than 2,000 scholarship participants.

Chappelear opposes the school voucher program. But, despite the rise in his district, he said not much has changed in his schools' student bodies.

There hasn't been a shift in enrollment,” he said. “We're not losing students to the private schools.”

It’s nearly been a year since the Ohio legislature expanded its school voucher program so that every family, regardless of income, is eligible for a scholarship to attend a private school.

Since then, school voucher use has predictably exploded: more than 60,000 new scholarships were awarded this year, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce. But enrollment in private schools has largely remained flat.

That’s because many of the new school voucher recipients are students who were already attending private school.

Expanding school vouchers

For nearly a decade, if you wanted to participate in the EdChoice Expansion program your household income had to be at or below 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL). That’s about $64,000 for a family of three, or $75,000 for a family of four.

Last year, that changed. The Ohio legislature took away those income limits and earmarked around $800 million for anyone to use private school vouchers. It’s just a part of more than a billion dollars used to fund Ohio’s five voucher programs that advocates argue enable better education outcomes for students.

Before that shift, Chappelear said scholarship recipients in his eastern Ohio district were largely low-income. That’s not the case anymore.

“The students who take vouchers in our district are disproportionately not low income and disproportionately white,” Chappelear said. “I think that kind of flies in the face of the voucher mantra of saving poor students from failing schools.”

T.C. Chappelear opposes school vouchers. But the superintendent says his district hasn't seen enrollment declines since the program's expansion.
Kendall Crawford
/
Ohio Newsroom
T.C. Chappelear opposes school vouchers. But the superintendent says his district hasn't seen enrollment declines since the program's expansion.

But, school voucher advocates say they expected – and wanted – more private school families to be a part of the program, regardless of demographic.

Aaron Churchill is an expert with the Fordham Institute, an education think tank that supports school vouchers. He argues every family in Ohio pays taxes that help fund the education system and that money should follow each student, regardless of what educational model works for them.

“The student is the center of the funding system, not what sector they're attending,” Churchill said.

Plus, he said the program still prioritizes low-income families. The scholarship amounts decline the more money your family makes. High school students can get as much as $8,408 dollars, while K-8 students can receive up to $6,166. Students whose families make 751% of the FPL or higher get less than $1,000.

“We're covering all students in Ohio,” Churchill said. “So I think that's a significant move, towards inclusiveness and fairness for all students.”

Accountability

Regardless of that stipulation, public school advocates oppose the expansion of the program and school vouchers themselves. Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association said, vouchers take resources away from the majority of students.

“Our taxpayer dollars need to be spent in a way that serves the over 90% of Ohio’s kids attending our public schools,” DiMauro said.

He argues if private schools are going to accept public money, there needs to be more accountability.

“The private schools that are accepting hundreds of millions of dollars should be held to the same standards both in terms of academic and fiscal oversight that our public schools are held to,” he said.

While students using vouchers to attend private schools still have to take standardized tests, DiMauro wants the state to administer the same tests to all students and require financial transparency from private schools.

A hallway of lockers at Indian Creek High School in Wintersville.
Kendall Crawford
/
Ohio Newsroom
Indian Creek Local School District is just one of many districts across the state that have seen a surge in voucher use.

Bill Seitz, a Republican state legislator from the Cincinnati area says a bill he’s sponsoring could do just that.

“The Department of Education, or what's left of it, will be required to come up with side-by-side comparisons, comparing how well the children do in the private school to how well they do in the public school. Apples to apples comparisons,” Seitz said.

Seitz supports school vouchers. But he said for the program to succeed, the state has to ensure private schools spend the money responsibly.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.