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State Keeps Increasing Size Of One Voucher Program, Though All Vouchers Have Never Been Claimed

Apr 28, 2014

The school year is winding down – but some districts and families are preparing for next school year by looking into the state’s school voucher programs. 

One of those voucher programs keeps adding spaces, though the demand for those vouchers has never exceeded the supply. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.

The state has four programs providing taxpayer-paid vouchers to public school students to attend private or charter schools. There’s the voucher program for students with autism, and the one for kids with any type of disability. There’s the one only for students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School district. And there’s the largest program, EdChoice. 

“The EdChoice scholarship program, it does enable students who would be assigned to underperforming public schools the opportunity to attend a participating private school.”

John Charlton speaks for the Ohio Department of Education, which manages the four voucher programs. EdChoice was set up in 2005 with 14,000 vouchers for kids in failing schools to go to private schools, many of them religious – but not charters. The first year, only 3,141 were used. The next year, voucher usage more than doubled to nearly 7,000. And the following year usage increased by another third, to 9,700.  And each year after the 2008-09 school year, another two thousand families got vouchers – but the demand never exceeded the 14,000 vouchers available.  However, the state increased the number of vouchers in the 11-12 school year to 30,000, and Gov. John Kasich announced another increase in his 2011 State of the State speech….. 
“....to next year 60,000 vouchers. I don’t know that that exists anywhere in America. And it’s going to give our poor people a chance.”

In the last two school years, more than 32,000 EdChoice vouchers were used. But 90,000 vouchers were available. Piet Van Lier studies vouchers for the progressive-leaning think tank Policy Matters Ohio, and he questions the value and the cost of those vouchers. 
“There’s been no research of the EdChoice program. There’s no evidence that this program is working for Ohio students and it’s not making the schools better. It’s really just draining money from the public schools.”

But advocates call EdChoice a success. Sarah Pechan Driver with School Choice Ohio says there was a wait list in the early years of the program, even though there were thousands of vouchers that were not used. But she says that’s because many families didn’t apply because they worried the vouchers would run out. 
“That was a fear when we were close to the 14,000 cap and when we exceeded the demand for that. Now the biggest challenge is getting the word out to families, because most families who are eligible for the scholarship do not know that it exists.”

It should be said that students must still be accepted into private schools before they can claim vouchers. Dale Butland is with the liberal-leaning think tank Innovation Ohio. He ties in the growth in the EdChoice program with an 83% increase in money to charter schools and a half a billion dollars in cuts to funding for traditional public schools. 
“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that many in the legislature simply don’t like public schools and are doing everything in their power to trash public schools. It’s a war on public education in many ways.”

Among the school choice lawmakers Butland singles out is Rep. Andrew Brenner of Delaware County, for writing in an online forum that public education in America is socialism. Brenner has apologized to those who were offended by that comment, and wrote that he’ll continue to support educational opportunities for everyone. And Brenner says those exist in the traditional public schools, like those in his district. 
“The people who’ve moved into, for instance, the Olentangy school system because of the school system. In fact, most of the schools in many of the suburban districts are doing quite well, and the results speak for themselves.”

This time around, students in 220 failing public schools have until May 9 to apply for EdChoice vouchers – and 4,000 vouchers will be available for pre-k and kindergarten students headed to any public school with family incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, which is $39,580 for a family of three. The vouchers provide up to $4,250 for K-8th grade students and $5,000 for high school students. The state has around $290 million since the EdChoice program was created, but obviously more money was set aside for vouchers that were never used. That unspent money goes back to the state’s general fund.