A new study from the Ohio Education Policy Institute says that students who use private school vouchers are coming from wealthier families than the previous voucher recipients. The study suggests that these students have likely attended a private school before getting a voucher.
The study focuses on 10-plus years of data from the Ohio Department of Education, examining Ohio’s five voucher programs.
A researcher with the Ohio Education Policy Institute, Howard Fleeter, said that the percentage of low-income students using vouchers in Cleveland dropped to 7% from 35% this year.
Simultaneously, the number of EdChoice Scholarship Program recipients, the most used voucher program for low-performing districts, dropped to 15% from 32%.
However, the percentage of EdChoice students who had previously attended a private school rose to 55% this year, from just 7% in 2019.
The statistics represent a significant change in the use of Ohio’s voucher programs, which started with a Cleveland version in the 1990s, to allow students in struggling school districts to access better programs.
“Once you start giving vouchers to people that are already attending private schools,” Fleeter told the Ideastream Public Media. “You’re not enhancing opportunities when you do that. You’re just paying for people that have already demonstrated that they have the ability to make that choice themselves.”
The two policy changes in 2020 contributed to the new shift in Ohio. The changes allowed siblings of students with EdChoice vouchers to become eligible for the vouchers as well and students no longer had to attend public school before getting a voucher.
In 2022, a bill approved by the state’s Legislature also has the same procedure for students receiving K-8 grade EdChoice vouchers.
Aaron Churchill, a Research Director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy non-profit that frequently advocates for broadening voucher usage in Ohio, argues the data Fleeter is using is misleading. Stating that there’s no accurate way to track the number of low-income students using vouchers in Ohio.
“In Cleveland, for example, the ‘low-income qualified’ number he is using is artificially low because ODE only flags students as such if their school takes the voucher amount as the full tuition payment,” Churchill said in an email. “Because some private schools charge tuition at rates less than the voucher amount, students’ incomes are not verified (and thus they are deemed ‘not low-income qualified).'”
Churchill said the study ignores other positive data points about Ohio’s voucher programs, showing a “diverse mix of children benefitting from the program.”
“In 2022, 67% of Cleveland voucher users were Black, Hispanic or multiracial. The broader, income-based EdChoice program serves low- and mid-income students from racial backgrounds that track closely with district demographics. In the end, Ohio policymakers deserve credit, not disparagement, for expanding voucher eligibility to more middle-income families,” he said in an e-mail. “These moms and dads often make significant sacrifices to afford tuition or they have to forego private school opportunities altogether.”
In 2022, the data on voucher usage was made available by the Ohio Department of Education. The data shows that White students disproportionately take the EdChoice vouchers.
Stephen Dyer, an education policy analyst and former Democratic state representative in Ohio, in a research brief, argued that vouchers are effectively being used to “re-segregate” schools.
According to the Department of Education data Dyer shared, school districts like Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School, where 90% of EdChoice voucher recipients were white, despite only 18% of the district being white.
Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District is one of the 130 school districts that has joined a lawsuit against the voucher program, arguing that the district has lost millions in school funds because students using the vouchers leave the school district.
The Ohio Education Policy Institute study notes that the number of students availing of vouchers has dramatically increased across the five programs to almost 83,000 from 30,000 in 2014. The biggest expansion was seen in the EdChoice program and the EdChoice Expansion Scholarship – this is for students whose family income is at or below the poverty line by 250%.
The study shows that the total number of scholarships paid out to families has significantly increased to an estimated $604 million from $175 million in 2014.
The Ohio House, led by Republicans who generally favor vouchers, has voted to boost the EdChoice Expansion Scholarship program through the state’s next biennial budget. This would extend eligibility to students with family incomes at or below the federal poverty line by 450%.
In addition to that, a “backpack bill” that would make vouchers available to all students has been introduced both in the Ohio House and the Senate.