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Ohio spends $15 million more than estimated on expanded private school voucher program

A crowd stands facing the Ohio Statehouse carrying signs reading, "School choice = opportunity" and "We stand for students."
Samantha Hendrickson
Students and parents rally at the Ohio Statehouse in support of possible changes that would increase eligibility for taxpayer-funded school vouchers to K-12 students statewide on Thursday, May 17, 2023, in Columbus, Ohio. Advocates applaud the changes as expanding school choice, but opponents say such programs divert funding from public schools and violate Ohio's constitution.

The State of Ohio spent $15 million more for the expanded school voucher program this year than it had estimated, and the program, which allows every child regardless of income to apply, is only expected to grow in the coming years.

The Ohio Legislative Services Commission initially estimated the EdChoice Voucher program would cost $397 million this fiscal year for the new vouchers. The numbers are now out and show over 66,000 families applied to the new program costing $412 million this year alone.

In total, over 90,000 families applied to the school voucher program, when including renewals from previous years and the Cleveland Scholarship Program, costing more than $580 million.

The state estimated the program will cost $439 million next year. That would bring the total cost of publicly-funded private education in Ohio to more than $1 billion once the cost of vouchers allowed in prior years and other costs the state pays for — like busing and paperwork — are factored in.

Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted spoke on WOSU's All Sides with Anna Staver Wednesday and said he thinks what Ohio spends on public schools will remain sustainable.

"Kids are a priority in this administration," Husted said. "And I have not met a governor over time or a legislature over time who said they didn't care about education funding and trying to make sure that it's adequate. And and so I think that will always remain a priority."

The expanded EdChoice Voucher program not only expanded eligibility to every Ohio child to receive at least some money to pay for a private school tuition, but it also increased the amounts available to scholarship recipients.

Any family making up to 450% of the federal poverty level – or $135,000 for a family of four – can get an EdChoice expansion voucher for private school, with families making more money getting less. EdChoice vouchers for students in kindergarten through 8th grade increased from $5,500 to $6,165. For high school students, vouchers went from $7,500 to $8,407.

Husted said expanding private schools fits in with his goal of improving education across all sectors in Ohio, including public schools and career technical schools.

"You can't expect the public school system in your local community to solve the unique needs of every child in that community," Husted said.

But not all agree with Husted's view of the state's investments in private schools with public money as the program grows in cost faster than expected.

Stephen Dyer, a education policy analyst and former Ohio state representative, said on All Sides that the program is failing to open up opportunity to attend private schools to lower income and non-white families like proponents of the program suggest. Dyer said he finds it stunning that of the 32,000 additional new applications for the voucher, 28,000 came from white families.

"What it's turned into is a subsidy for wealthier, mostly white families to help subsidize the creation of a public subsidy for them to send their kids to private school. With almost zero oversight with how this money is being spent," Dyer said.

Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro also criticized the program and said vouchers allow the state to subsidize schools that he said do not serve all students and are able to pick and choose which students can attend regardless of accountability.

"The reason that it is so important to have a strong, fully funded public school system is because only public schools have the responsibility and the duty to serve all students, regardless of their race, their gender, their family income, regardless of who they are or their abilities," DiMauro said.

Ohio is estimated to spend nearly $13 billion on primary and secondary education in the state this year across public, private and charter schools.

Husted said he recognized not all demographics of the state have equal access to private education, like rural areas and southeastern Appalachian Ohio, but he said he expects that to change as Ohio provides more vouchers.

"It won't happen immediately, but with the expansion of eligibility, you're going to see more schools, you're going to see more schools get built that will serve these students in some of those places," Husted said.
Copyright 2023 WOSU 89.7 NPR News. To see more, visit WOSU 89.7 NPR News.

George Shillcock