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School voucher use surges among suburban Northeast Ohio districts, state data show

A walkway leads to the entrance of a two story brick building. A digital display sign reads "Rocky River High School."
Annie Wu
Ideastream Public Media
Rocky River High School in Rocky River.

After the state drastically expanded access to private school vouchers last year, use has surged in Ohio, particularly in suburbs and wealthy communities.

In Northeast Ohio, that's manifested in large infusions of cash for private schools in and near school districts like Rocky River, Chardon and Twinsburg, but hasn't necessarily resulted in a drop in student enrollment in those districts, according to an Ideastream analysis of Ohio Department of Education data from late June.

Bay Village saw one of the largest percent increases in EdChoice Expansion voucher usage from the 2022-2023 to the 2023-2024 school year, up almost 3,000%, the data show. Ohio's voucher program was significantly boosted last year, with the state budgeting almost $1 billion for the program and expanding eligibility.

This chart is based on data from the Ohio Department of Education for school years 2022-2023 and 2023-2024. Voucher funding for the year 2023-2024 has not yet been finalized by the ODE.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
This chart is based on EdChoice Expansion data from the Ohio Department of Education for school years 2022-2023 and 2023-2024. Voucher funding for the year 2023-2024 has not yet been finalized by the ODE.

The number of students who left the district because of the vouchers was small, about .0125% of its total enrollment, said Scot Prebles, Bay Village Schools' Superintendent.

"Resources that originally came to our district for students whose parents exercised choice are now being directly sent to the private school where the student is being educated," Prebles said in a statement last week. "More Bay Village families qualify for vouchers because there are no longer income caps. The families who have always chosen to send their students to private schools will continue to do so, and can now take advantage of the voucher program. Our enrollment hasn't changed, but the system has."

It appears Ohio's expanded voucher system so far has not made a big dent in public schools' enrollment. From October 2022 to October 2023, enrollment dropped statewide about 5,500 students, down to 1.751 million students, according to state education data. Enrollment in nonpublic schools increased by about 3,000 students over the same period to 171,830 students.

But while enrollment figures changed only slightly, overall voucher use surged statewide and in Northeast Ohio.

Ohio awarded about 130,000 vouchers in the 2023-2024 school year, more than double the previous year's number; 46,056 of those vouchers went to families in Northeast Ohio counties, and about 22,000 went to school districts coded as "suburban" or "wealthy suburban" schools in Northeast Ohio, according to Ohio Department of Education data.

Most families using vouchers were already sending their children to private school, said Stephen Dyer, a former Democratic state representative and an education policy analyst.

That, he argues, flies in the face of the original intent of Ohio's voucher system, which was set up in the 1990s starting in Cleveland. He recently wrote a column criticizing the explosion of suburban voucher use in Ohio.

"Everybody said, we need to rescue poor kids (from) failing schools," Dyer said. "No one would argue that Upper Arlington is a failing school. Yet now suddenly we're giving hundreds of vouchers out for the kids who need to be rescued from there. This is a complete repudiation of the entire premise of the voucher program from the beginning. And it just kind of proves what it was always all about: giving the adults who are in wealthier suburbs substantial rate cuts on their tuition bill at taxpayer expense."

A chart from former State Rep. Stephen Dyer shows the increase in voucher usage based on Ohio Department of Education data. School districts across Ohio are assigned a category like "wealthy suburban" or "small, rural poor" by the department of education.
Stephen Dyer
Stephen Dyer
A chart from former State Rep. Stephen Dyer shows the increase in voucher usage based on Ohio Department of Education data. School districts across Ohio are assigned a category like "wealthy suburban" or "small, rural poor" by the department of education.

Indeed, of the 15 Northeast Ohio school districts that saw the biggest surge of voucher use this year in their geographic boundaries, all but three have five-star ratings on Ohio's annual report-card rating. Chardon, Olmsted Falls and Columbia Local school districts each have 4.5-star ratings.

But not everyone agrees that expanded voucher access is a problem.

While it's true that the earliest iterations of the voucher program focused on low-income students, vouchers have always been meant to increase educational opportunities for students in general, said Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Fordham Foundation, a pro-school-voucher education policy nonprofit.

"Low-income families were — and continue to be — the ones most in need of the state assistance to access private schools," Churchill said. "Middle-income and well-to-do families shouldn't get locked into a singular option either. Even the highest-performing public schools, as good as they are, aren't the right fit for every single student. Maybe the district operates a humongous 'comprehensive' suburban high school. There might be at least a few kids who would benefit from a smaller school environment that a private school might provide. Maybe a private school offers a specialized music or arts program that isn't available at the local district. The list could go on."

He said that it's not "unfair" to provide scholarships to wealthier students because their parents are taxpayers too. Additionally, voucher amounts are scaled back for wealthier parents. Families within 450% of the poverty line receive the full voucher amount, $6,165 for elementary school students through eighth grade and $8,407 for high school students, reduced down to $650 and $950 respectively for families at the top of the income bracket.

"Under former law, they had to 'double pay' for their child's education — once through taxes, a second time through tuition," Churchill said. "Now, they receive some state support for their child's education (though in some cases not enough to cover full tuition). Remember that more affluent public school students' educations are heavily subsidized by taxpayers, and at levels much higher than the scaled-back voucher amounts for more affluent families."

Parma City School District saw a large increase in the number of parents using the EdChoice Expansion vouchers this school year. About 2,100 families that live in the school district used them, the third greatest number in any school district in Ohio, the data show.

Parma Superintendent Charles Smialek said he believes his school district should be the "first choice" for parents educating their students locally, despite a proliferation of private schools nearby.

"We continue to believe that the public school system should be the defining element of community pride and community identity. We worry that when people choose other options that they may be less likely to support us and that concerns us," Smialek said. "We'll be on the ballot this year for operating money, and the more folks that you give reason to leave the schools, the more you potentially lose their support."

When looking at other kinds of private school vouchers in Ohio, use of the Edchoice Expansion vouchers has not increased significantly in urban school districts in Northeast Ohio like Cleveland and Akron.

However, the number of traditional EdChoice vouchers and the Cleveland Scholarship program, which are provided to parents who live in Cleveland or within "low-performing districts" in Ohio, continues to increase for Akron and Cleveland, up 2,231 to 2,525 over the last two school years in Akron's case, for example.

Corrected: July 9, 2024 at 3:24 PM EDT
The graphic in this story has been corrected to replace two non-Northeast Ohio school districts that had initially been incorrectly included.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.