March 26, 2024

Mercedes Schneider: Ohio’s School Voucher Program a Boon for Private School Admin

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Mercedes Schneider, educator writer and researcher, takes a look at how Ohio’s private school operators are making sure to reap maximum benefit from the state’s voucher program. Reposted with permission. 

School voucher programs allow public money to be used to cover private school tuition. Perhaps “cover” is not quite right in even most instances; “subsidize” is the better word, and that right there presents an equity problem: If the school voucher does not fully cover tuition, then the program automatically advantages those families that can cover any balance after accounting for supplemental financial assistance offered by some private schools.

Of course, there is also the challenge of paying for auxiliary expenses, which, again, leverages the “haves” over the ‘have nots” when it comes to attending a private school using public money.

Many proponents of school vouchers speak of choice for lower-income students and their families (see here and here, for example). However, regarding college enrollment and degree attainment, even pro-reform Education Next acknowledges that lower income students with some resources fare better than those severely disadvantaged:

The voucher intervention we study did have its intended effects—but only for students from disadvantaged families that nonetheless had a certain amount of material and cultural capital. Our findings point to the limitations of half-tuition vouchers to promote college enrollment and graduation among the least-advantaged students, as well as their potential value for those with access to greater fiscal and cultural resources.

Most school voucher programs cannot alleviate the reality that “a certain amount of material and cultural capital” matters when it comes to school vouchers for private education.

But what about school voucher programs that pull out the stops regarding low-income requirements and just make voucher money available to virtually all households to some degree, say, like Ohio did with its EdChoice program in June 2023?

Well, first of all, it should come as no surprise that by November 2023, the Ohio school voucher program was $15M over budget, as WOSU reports:

The expanded EdChoice Voucher program not only expanded eligibility to every Ohio child to receive at least some money to pay for a private school tuition, but it also increased the amounts available to scholarship recipients.

Any family making up to 450% of the federal poverty level – or $135,000 for a family of four – can get an EdChoice expansion voucher for private school, with families making more money getting less. EdChoice vouchers for students in kindergarten through 8th grade increased from $5,500 to $6,165. For high school students, vouchers went from $7,500 to $8,407.

In other words, Ohio school voucher finances are being stretched to stair-step-incorporate more families not lower-income and certainly with “material and cultural capital” that outdoes that of families of four who cannot touch $135K a year.

What a boon for the Ohio private schools, many of which are now encouraging (and even requiring) their applicants to tap into Ohio’s EdChoice funding, as the January 2024 Propublica reports:

For years the program, EdChoice, targeted mostly lower-income students in struggling school districts. Now it is an entitlement available to all, with its value decreasing for families with higher incomes but still providing more than $7,000 annually for high school students in solidly middle-class families and close to $1,000 for ones in the wealthiest families. Demand for EdChoice vouchers has nearly doubled this year, at a cost to Ohio taxpayers of several hundred million additional dollars, the final tally of which won’t be known for months.

That surge has been propelled by private school leaders, who have an obvious interest: The more voucher money families receive, the less schools have to offer in financial aid. The voucher revenue also makes it easier to raise tuition.

“The Board has voted to require all families receiving financial assistance … to apply for the EdChoice Program. We also encourage all families paying full tuition to apply for this funding,” read the email from the Columbus Jewish Day School board president. …

For decades, Republicans have pushed, with mixed success, for school voucher programs in the name of parental choice and encouraging free-market competition among schools. But in just the past couple of years, vouchers have expanded to become available to most or all children in 10 states: Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia. … Many of the expanded programs are experiencing high demand, which voucher advocates are taking as affirmation of their argument: that families would greatly prefer to send their children to private schools, if only they could afford them.

… But much of the demand for the expanded voucher programs is in fact coming from families, many quite affluent, whose children were already attending private schools. …

In Ohio, the effects of the move toward looser eligibility in recent years was clear even prior to last summer’s big expansion: Whereas in 2018, fewer than a tenth of the students who were newly receiving vouchers that year had not attended a public school the year before, by 2022, more than half of students who were new to EdChoice were already in private schools.

Don’t miss the pressure on Ohio’s private school families to access EdChoice money:

At St. Brendan’s the Navigator, on the other side of the Columbus beltway from the Jewish Day School, the missive arrived on the last day of July. The letter, signed by the Rev. Bob Penhallurick, called the expanded vouchers a “tremendous boon to our school families and Catholic education across Ohio” and said that all families were “strongly encouraged to apply for and receive the EdChoice scholarship.” He noted that, depending on their income level, families could receive up to $6,165 for each child — nearly covering the $6,975 tuition. “Even a small scholarship is a major blessing for you, the school, and the parish,” he wrote.

And then he added, in italics, that if a family did not apply for the vouchers, “we will respect that decision,” but that “supplemental financial aid from the parish in this case will require a meeting” with either himself or another pastor at the school.

The message to St. Brendan the Navigator parents: In order to be considered for other financial aid, one cannot automatically choose to forego tapping into the state’s taxpayer money, even on principle.

Let’s do another school pressure campaign featured in the January 2024 Propublic article, one that is more direct:

At Holy Family School near Youngstown, the directive arrived a few days later, on Aug. 3. “As you are aware, ALL students attending Holy Family School will be eligible for the EdChoice Scholarship. We are requesting that all families register their child/ren for this scholarship as soon as possible,” wrote the school’s leadership. And then it added in bold: “It is imperative that you register for EdChoice for each of your students. We are waiting to send invoices until your EdChoice Scholarship has been awarded.”

In an interview at the school, Holy Family principal Laura Parise said the push to apply for EdChoice had succeeded. “One hundred percent of our students are on it,” she said. “We made it that way — we made our families fill out the form, and we’re going from there.”

Parise said that some families had been reluctant to apply, but that the school told them that if they did not do so, they could not qualify for any of the school’s discounts from its $5,900 tuition, such as the ones Holy Family offers to second and third children from the same family. If parents still needed additional help beyond the vouchers, they could request it.

So, there’s the choice for parents whose children may have even already attended Holy Family: You must apply for state money before any other discounts will be offered, even multiple-child discounts.

On its face, it looked to me as if Ohio’s private school parents were of their own volition driving up the numbers of EdChoice applicants already attending private schools. According to Propublica, this is not the case.

It is Ohio’s private school administrators pressuring their students’ parents to run for the money– money, mind you, which is over budget and surely benefiting Ohio parents and students who have financial and cultural leverage at the expense of those who do not.

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