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School vouchers now going to more wealthy, private school students, study says

 A row of yellow-orange lockers in a hallway at Cleveland Heights High School.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
A hallway at Cleveland Heights High School, a district which said it has lost millions in school funding due to students taking vouchers to attend private schools.

Students who use private school vouchers in Ohio are coming from wealthier families than previous voucher recipients and are more likely to have attended a private school before getting a voucher, a new study from the Ohio Education Policy Institute suggests.

The study looks back at 10-plus years of data from the Ohio Department of Education, across Ohio's five voucher programs.

Howard Fleeter, a researcher with the Ohio Education Policy Institute, said the percentage of low-income students using vouchers in Cleveland dropped from 35% to 7% percent as of this year. During that same time, the number of low-income EdChoice Scholarship Program recipients — EdChoice is the most-used voucher program in Ohio and is for low performing districts — dropped from about 32% to about 15%.

The percentage of EdChoice students who had attended a private school in the year prior jumped from 7% in 2019 to almost 55% this year.

Fleeter said that represents a significant change in the use of Ohio's voucher programs, which started with the Cleveland version in the 1990s as a way to allow students in a struggling school district to access potentially better programs elsewhere.

"Once you start giving vouchers to people that are already attending private schools," Fleeter said, "you're not enhancing opportunities when you do that. You're just paying for people that have already demonstrated that they have the ability to make that choice themselves."

Fleeter said two changes in voucher policy in Ohio in 2020 contribute to the changes. Siblings of students with EdChoice vouchers became eligible for the vouchers, and high school students were no longer required to have attended a public school before getting the voucher.

A bill approved by the Legislature in 2022 also phases in that same approach for students receiving K-8 EdChoice vouchers.

Aaron Churchill, Ohio Research Director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy nonprofit that frequently advocates for expanded voucher usage in Ohio, said the data Fleeter is using is misleading. He argued that there's no accurate way to track the number of low-income students using vouchers in Ohio.

"In Cleveland, for example, the 'low-income qualified' number he is using is artificially low because ODE only flags students as such if their school takes the voucher amount as the full tuition payment," Churchill said in an email. "Because some private schools charge tuition at rates less than the voucher amount, students' incomes are not verified (and thus they are deemed 'not low-income qualified).'"

Churchill said the study ignores other positive data points about Ohio's voucher programs, showing a "diverse mix of children benefitting from the program."

"In 2022, 67% of Cleveland voucher users were Black, Hispanic or multiracial. The broader, income-based EdChoice program serves low- and mid-income students from racial backgrounds that track closely with district demographics. In the end, Ohio policymakers deserve credit, not disparagement, for expanding voucher eligibility to more middle-income families," he said in an e-mail. "These moms and dads often make significant sacrifices to afford tuition or they have to forego private school opportunities altogether."

Ohio Department of Education data on voucher usage, made available in 2022, shows that at a majority of school districts, white students disproportionately are taking EdChoice vouchers.

Stephen Dyer, an education policy analyst and former Democratic Ohio state representative, argued in a research brief on the topic that schools are effectively being "re-segregated." In school districts like Cleveland Heights-University Heights City Schools, about 90% of EdChoice recipients are white, despite the district being only about 18% white, according to Department of Education data Dyer shared.

Cleveland Heights-University Heights is one of 130 school districts that have joined a lawsuit against the voucher program, arguing it's lost millions in school funding due to students taking vouchers and leaving the school district.

The Ohio Education Policy Institute study notes that the number of students using vouchers has increased dramatically in recent years, up from about 30,000 across the five voucher programs in 2014 to almost 83,000 this year. The biggest expansion was in the EdChoice program and the EdChoice Expansion Scholarship — which is for students whose family income is at or below 250% of the federal poverty line.

The study shows the total number of scholarships paid out to families has significantly increased, up from about $175 million in 2014 to an estimated $604 million this year.

The Ohio House, led by Republicans who generally favor vouchers, voted to boost the EdChoice Expansion Scholarship program through the state’s next biennial budget, to extend eligibility to students with family incomes at or below 450% of the federal poverty line. A “backpack bill” that would make vouchers available to all students has been introduced in both the Ohio house and senate.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.