Voucher use explodes with EdChoice expansion

DELPHOS — Five-hundred and eighty-five students living in the Delphos school district used EdChoice Expansion vouchers to attend private school this school year.

The school district saw a 350% increase in voucher use since state lawmakers expanded eligibility for the publicly funded private school tuition scholarships last summer, with only 130 students in Delphos using vouchers the previous school year, Ohio Department of Education and Workforce data show.

Delphos is one of several districts to record a sudden surge in students applying for vouchers, but enrollment data suggests many of those students were already attending private school.

Delphos schools gained 21 students over the previous school year.

Ottawa-Glandorf, which saw 251 students who reside within the district apply for vouchers this school year, gained seven students in the same period.

Only 30 students in the Ottawa-Glandorf district participated in EdChoice the previous school year, ODEW data show.

“It hurts us,” Delphos schools Superintendent Jeff Hobbs said, adding: “Parents who were once paying tuition are now sending their kids for free.”

Ohio’s voucher system started as a pilot program for children in Cleveland schools.

Lawmakers expanded voucher eligibility first to students in other schools the state classified as low performing, then to families with low to moderate income.

Legislators created a similar scholarship program for special needs children to attend the school of their choice.

Lawmakers expanded EdChoice eligibility again last summer through the state’s biennial budget, allowing all families to apply for the publicly funded scholarships regardless of where a child lives or how much their parents earn.

The scholarships, which only cover tuition, decline in value the more a family earns.

Families earning up to 450% of federal poverty level, or $135,000 for a family of four, qualify for the full scholarship, which amounts to $6,166 for children in kindergarten through eighth grade and $8,408 for grades 9-12.

The highest earners can receive $650 per child enrolled in K-8 and $950 per child enrolled in high school.

“(Families) may have been making the sacrifice for many years to pay the full tuition,” said Connie Niese, principal at Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic School in Ottawa, who encouraged parents to apply for the scholarship.

“Who can’t use an extra $600 in their pocket?” she said. “Maybe you can have an extra vacation or maybe you can use it to purchase something that you’ve been looking forward to or making some improvements on your house.”

Public school administrators say private schools participating in EdChoice should be held to the same standards as public schools, which are rated by the state based on graduation rates, student test scores and other measures.

“Ohio now has all publicly funded schools,” Ottawa-Glandorf Superintendent Don Horstman said via email, “just some have to follow all of the state laws and rules, and some that do not have to follow all of the state laws and rules regarding public education.”

Horstman said the voucher expansion is already affecting public schools, as the legislature has not fully implemented the Fair School Funding Plan.

The state is expected to spend nearly $1 billion on vouchers this year instead, Horstman said, noting that per pupil funding to private schools in some cases exceeds public schools when factoring in auxiliary service funds.

“Unless the legislature intends to add millions of dollars to fund education, it doesn’t take a mathematician to understand the significant impact of subtracting EdChoice from current funding levels,” said Mike Estes, superintendent of Bath schools.

Still, private school administrators say they test their students too, and that students are held to high academic and personal standards.

Ss. Peter and Paul School uses a different test the state approved as comparable to the one used by public schools, Niese said. “We still have to follow state rules,” she said, “but then we also follow diocesan rules.”

“Some of those things may look a little different, but certainly our students and schools are held accountable,” said Bruce Bowman, superintendent of Temple Christian School.

Enrollment at Temple Christian grew by 15% this school year, Bowman said.

The school’s website advertises the EdChoice scholarship, asking prospective parents: “What if private school was free?”

Temple Christian will soon open a new elementary school building. Bowman expects elementary class sizes to double, thanks to the new space and availability of vouchers to make private education more affordable.

“We have no issue with public schools,” Bowman said, adding: “We have a different product. We’re here for those families that are interested in a faith-based education that shares their family values.”

Districts where families use EdChoice the most

• Delphos schools: 585

• Elida: 237

• Ottawa-Glandorf: 251

• Lima: 142*

• Shawnee: 133

• St. Marys: 111

• Columbus Grove: 100

Source: Ohio Department of Education and Workforce data for EdChoice Expansion scholarship for the 2023-24 school year.

* 464 students in the Lima schools district participate in the original EdChoice scholarship program.