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School voucher use has exploded. Some Ohio families can't take part

A school bus moves through in a northeast Columbus neighborhood
Karen Kasler
Statehouse News Bureau
A school bus moves through in a northeast Columbus neighborhood

School vouchers have exploded in use in Ohio since last summer when the state legislature made all families, regardless of their income level, eligible for the private school scholarships.

The Zeiders are one of those families. In 2023, Nicole Zeiders, a mother of two from Miami Township in southwest Ohio, wanted smaller class sizes for her youngest son and a better STEM program for her oldest but couldn’t afford tuition for both. She talked with administrators at the nearby Catholic school Bishop Leibold in Miamisburg.

“One of the ladies there at the school who works with EdChoice, she said, ‘Well, let’s just hold off, there’s this big bill coming through the state and if it passes, you’ll have a better opportunity,’” Zeiders said.

It did pass, last summer. And now through EdChoice Expansion, both of her sons attend Bishop Leibold at no cost to them.

The Zeiders boys are two of more than 60,000 new scholarship recipients across the state taking part in the program. While the number of scholarships awarded has increased by thousands this year, families in some parts of Ohio can’t take part.

Private school options

12 counties in the state have zero private schools that accept vouchers. And, if you want a nonreligious school, your options are even more limited. More than 60 Ohio counties don’t offer a participating secular private school.

Only about 4% of students in rural areas participate in the program. Critics of the voucher system say that isn’t fair.

“The taxpayers in those communities are being asked now to fund a private school option somewhere else,” Susan Kaeser, an education specialist with the League of Women Voters Ohio, said.

Before rules for eligibility changed, the money used for vouchers came out of the budgets of public districts that were losing students to private schools. Now, funding for vouchers comes out of a pot of money earmarked just for the program, separate from public school funding.Kaeser says, under this model, more rural community tax dollars are dedicated to a program they can’t take advantage of. As spending for EdChoice Expansion increases, she worries the state could run low on funds which could lead to a battle between public and private over who gets funding.

“In a way, now local communities aren’t paying the bill, everybody across the state is paying the bill and it’s unclear who’s going to win,” she said. “Now everybody’s in direct competition for the same pot of money.”

Expanding school choice

School choice advocates say it’s not the same pot at all. The hundreds of millions set aside for the EdChoice Expansion program could go anywhere else in the state’s budget – even outside of education entirely.

And people like Ann Riddle with School Choice Ohio are working on increasing access in rural areas. Riddle travels around the state recruiting schools in small towns to participate in EdChoice Expansion. She says population scarcity is a big barrier. The average population of an Ohio county without a participating private school is around 30,000 people.

“Obviously if a community is thriving or growing, that's where you're going to see choice really come in,” Riddle said.

She admits many in rural areas are happy with their public school system.

“Because they're more of a community school and they're smaller. And they can do things that some of your larger urban districts can't do with the school. You know, they can take them to a field trip to Columbus in one bus, kind of thing,” she said.

The main building at St. Ignatius High School, a private Roman Catholic, Jesuit high school in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
The main building at St. Ignatius High School, a private Roman Catholic, Jesuit high school in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood.

And even if a small town has a private school, capacity is an issue.

Connie Niese is the principal at Sts. Peter and Paul in the Northwest Ohio village of Ottawa. She says she encourages existing students to apply for the program but admits the Catholic elementary school wouldn’t necessarily have room for an influx of new students.

“We don't have billboards up and we don't have TV commercials, and we're not putting fliers in everybody's mailboxes, trying to get every student here because we don't have room for every student here,” Niese said.

To deal with this issue, the Buckeye Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, is pitching a state-run loan program that would help private schools fund capital improvements and expand capacity – so more families have the option of sending their kids to them.

The institute, and other voucher supporters, want to be prepared as they expect even more families will sign onto the program this August.

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