Universal school choice has come to Ohio.
With passage of the two-year budget bill in July, the state legislature approved new funding that makes all Ohio students entering grades K-12 eligible to receive private school scholarships through the EdChoice Income-Based Expansion Program. This program dates to 2013, but previously only families with incomes at or below 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Level were eligible for vouchers.
While a legal fight is brewing over the validity of Ohio’s school voucher program, for now, the expanded eligibility guidelines stand: students from families with an adjusted gross income at or below 450 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines are eligible to receive the full scholarship amount of $6,165 (grades K-8) and $8,407 (grades 9-12). A child from a family of four with adjusted gross income of $135,000, for example, would be eligible for a full scholarship. Scholarships are renewable annually through grade 12, provided students meet certain criteria.
If a school’s tuition exceeds the scholarship amount, the difference would be waived for a family whose income is at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.
Students from families with a higher adjusted gross income are also eligible to receive a reduced scholarship on a sliding scale, at a minimum amount of $650 (K-8) or $950 (9-12).
What is the right school for your child?
Vouchers have a long history in Ohio and the EdChoice Expansion Program is one of several state scholarship programs available.
The EdChoice Scholarship Program was created in 2005 to provide vouchers to students in failing school districts. The state also offers the Autism Scholarship for students ages 3-21 to use at participating schools and private service providers, and the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship for any K-12 student with an Individualized Education Program. The latter has six different award levels to assist with the cost of intervention and educational services, and these scholarship amounts were also increased with passage of the most recent state budget.
School Choice Ohio has a tool to check eligibility for the various scholarship programs.
When it comes to choosing a school for one’s child, parents have many options to consider. Making a decision boils down to the family’s goals for the child and the individual him or herself. Beth Lawson, director of media and communication for School Choice Ohio, suggests families ask for recommendations from family and friends and “go shopping” to tour schools — older kids might even schedule a day to shadow another student.
She recommends asking questions about curriculum, teacher-to-student ratio, support programs for struggling students, extracurriculars and the school’s expectations of students and families.
The Ohio Department of Education has a searchable directory of all approved providers. Families must contact the participating private school to complete the enrollment and admission process before they apply for an EdChoice scholarship. The school submits the application on behalf of the student.
Most private schools have a staff person available to answer questions. For example, Central Catholic High School hired an EdChoice coordinator several years ago to help families navigate the application process. “It’s not overly complicated, but there are some nuances to it,” says Kevin Parkins, Central Catholic’s head of school.
Controversy over funding
While school choice advocates and private schools are hailing the expanded scholarship eligibility, public school districts and some other groups fervently oppose what they describe as an unconstitutional diversion of funding from the state’s public school system.
In a resolution passed earlier this year, the Board of Lucas County Commissioners took a stance opposing the expansion of school voucher programs. The resolution claims that metrics show voucher systems do not improve educational outcomes and can lead to racial, religious and socioeconomic segregation. It also criticizes the diversion of public tax dollars to schools that are not accountable to taxpayers.
Toledo Public and many other local public school districts have signed on to a coalition working to sue the state of Ohio over the constitutionality of the voucher program.
But school choice advocates say the vouchers simply give families more autonomy to make educational decisions based on what is best for their individual child.
“Every student has access to a scholarship if they want it to go to a private school. But it also makes a full menu of school options available to all families in Ohio,” says Lawson. “It’s not just about private, it’s not just about charter, it’s not just about public — it’s letting parents know that these are options.”
Even within families, she notes, different kids might need different types of education. “This really puts this in the hands of the parents to be able to decide, child by child, what is best for them,” says Lawson.
In terms of accountability to taxpayers, private schools participating in EdChoice must be chartered by the state of Ohio and their students participate in standardized testing, which is required by state law to be publicly reported. Families can review the results of scholarship students in non-public schools to compare performance with public schools.
“We are still held to the same standards when it comes to graduation requirements that our public school counterparts are held to,” says Parkins. ”I would certainly say that we have accountability, and we are driving our kids to graduation and moving them to productive members of society.”
The private Toledo Catholic school serves about 640 students. Last year, roughly 70 percent of students at the school were eligible for some type of EdChoice scholarship voucher, according to Parkins. This year 100 percent of school families are eligible.
”I think this new system will support families making a decision that’s ultimately best for their kid, not just best for their financial situation,” says Parkins. “For some families that could be a private Christian school, for some families that could be a charter school, and for some families it’s a public school.”