EdChoice voucher use increasing in Clark County

Students in music class on the first day of the school year at Catholic Central. FILE

Credit: Contributed

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Students in music class on the first day of the school year at Catholic Central. FILE

Credit: Contributed

The number of K-12 students attending private schools via state-paid EdChoice vouchers has skyrocketed both locally and statewide in recent years, and now a lawsuit is challenging the legality of that system.

More than 50,000 Ohio students received EdChoice vouchers, or scholarships, in the 2020-21 school year, nearly triple the 18,133 from seven years earlier, according to the Ohio Department of Education. The value of that state-paid aid hit $235.7 million in 2020-21, more than tripling the $74 million from 2013-14.

The expanding voucher program has particularly impacted schools deemed academically “underperforming,” such as Springfield City Schools, and bolstered enrollment at several religious schools in the area, where students can use vouchers to pay for their education.

Students are eligible if their “home” public school is deemed underperforming or if their family income is under certain thresholds. State data shows that religious schools including Catholic Central, Emmanuel Christian and Springfield Christian have attracted many of the students.

In the 2020-2021 school year, there were 781 students using EdChoice vouchers at Clark County private schools. According to Ohio Department of Education data, 514 of those students were using traditional EdChoice, where their “home public school” had been deemed underperforming. The other 267 were using the EdChoice expansion program, which allows low-income students from any public school to get a voucher.

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The local schools with the most students attending via EdChoice were Catholic Central (344 students), Emmanuel Christian (134) and Springfield Christian (92), according to ODE.

Opponents of EdChoice include major public school districts like Springfield, who say the money going toward EdChoice could be going to the public schools instead.

Springfield Superintendent Bob Hill said he believes “public education is the key to the future” and “EdChoice will further divide educators and essentially hurt our students.”

“The Springfield City School District lost $2.3 million in FY21 to EdChoice Scholarships and will lose an estimated $11.5 million over the next five years. This is $11.5 million that could be used by the district to change the lives of thousands of students, yet it is instead funneled to mostly private institutions that selectively enroll students, receive public tax dollars, then send back the students with disabilities or students that do not meet their preconceived mold or are difficult to serve,” Hill said.

Hill added that the EdChoice vouchers are based off of ODE report card data, in which he says the district is more than what the “flawed” state report card shows.

“I believe that is inappropriate and unfairly punitive to deem schools as failing when it is almost universally agreed upon by legislators and public educators alike that the school report card is flawed in many ways and in need or revisions,” he said. “I cannot support taking money away from efforts to influence even more students to reach their full potential through the EdChoice program.”

Proponents of the program say it gives parents and students control over where they attend school.

John Essig, pastor and superintended of Emmanuel Christian Academy, said EdChoice is a “great opportunity for families who share Emmanuel’s values and mission.”

“EdChoice is a great program because it provides for families who would otherwise not have the opportunity for an Emmanuel education,” Essig said. “Students thrive in a private school setting and greatly appreciate the biblical worldview integration.”

Essig said the academy is “enriched and blessed” by EdChoice families and are better for their participation.

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Voucher opponents point out that while public school “underperformance” is what allows a student to leave, the state doesn’t require any particular academic bar of the receiving private schools. And some studies have shown that voucher students in private schools have not fared better on state tests.

ODE paid an average of about $4,700 per student in 2021, according to their own data. The state spent more than $235.7 million in EdChoice vouchers in 2021. The EdChoice scholarship amount is up to $5,500 per student, per year for grades K–8 and $7,500 for grades 9-12.

About 500 students who live within the geographic boundaries of Springfield City Schools use vouchers to attend private schools instead. By ODE’s standards, 10 of Springfield’s 15 schools are on the “underperforming” list, making students eligible.

Other schools in Clark County included on the EdChoice eligibility list include: Fulton, Kenwood, Lincoln, Perrin Woods, Snyder Park and Warder Park-Wayne elementary schools; Hayward and Schaefer middle schools; Springfield High School; and the Springfield School of Innovation.

According to data from ODE, 50,407 students participated in EdChoice programs in the state in 2021. That’s up from 18,133 in 2014.

ODE reports 781 students used EdChoice in 2020-2021 in Clark County alone, up 28% over just two years.

Two weeks ago, five school districts and a broad public-school coalition sued Ohio, challenging the constitutionality of the EdChoice system.

The lawsuit calls the current program an “existential threat” to public schools. Supporters of the lawsuit say the public tax dollars used to support these scholarships are being taken away from Ohio public schools, with the EdChoice funding to private schools often higher than funding for the public schools the students leave.

Private school vouchers   
These are the Clark County schools that had students attending via EdChoice scholarships, or vouchers, in 2020-21.   
SchoolTraditional EdChoiceExpansion ProgramTotal
Catholic Central25094344
Emmanuel Christian8351134
Springfield Christian613192
Risen Christ Lutheran433073
Nightingale Montessori512172
The Ridgewood School223052
Guiding Shepard41014
Source: Ohio Department of Education