UPDATE: Lawmakers have voted to push back the enrollment period for vouchers that was scheduled to start on Feb. 1 for 60 days. The move heads to Governor Mike DeWine's office. Read more, here.
Ohio lawmakers are scrambling to stop the pending explosion of schools eligible for Ohio's EdChoice school voucher program.
The number of schools was set to more than double to 1,227 next school year because the rules for who qualifies have changed.
At the 11th hour, lawmakers are still debating how to find the right balance between providing private school choice without further penalizing public schools.
However, even the program’s staunchest supporters admit there are still serious flaws with the state’s current criteria.
EdChoice was created in 2005 to help students at struggling public schools pay for private education — students like 12-year-old Daniel Volk.
His step-mom, Becca Koons, said Daniel didn’t seem happy at Toni Wofford Morrison Elementary School in Lorain.
“He was very quiet, he was to himself… seemed kind of lost,” she said.
When she learned Daniel was eligible for Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program because the school received a D in some state school report card categories, she decided it was time to make a change.
She enrolled Daniel at St. Peter School, a small, private, Catholic K-8 school in Lorain.
“Some students just need that TLC,” said Principal Becky Brown.
Brown said she and her staff work to teach the 313 children who attend the school to be good students and good people.
“Our main focus is to get our kids to heaven,” she said. “If they go to Harvard… it's a bonus."
So far, Daniel has flourished.
“I feel bad that we didn’t bring him here sooner because he’s doing so well and is so happy,” said Koons.
The cost of choice
"We can't exist without strong public schools, but for those who need other options, I think we need to supply them,” said Ohio Sen. Matt Huffman (R-Lima).
Stories like Daniel’s are why Huffman strongly believes in expanding choices for Ohio students.
“We’re going to have better schools and we’re going to have better outcomes,” he said.
Right now, eligible students in K-8 receive $4,650 in EdChoice vouchers. High school students receive $6,000.
There were 517 schools whose students were eligible to receive vouchers during the 2019-2020 school year.
However, when changes made by state lawmakers in 2014 took effect last fall, our 5 On Your Side Investigation uncovered serious concerns about who benefits from the expansion of the EdChoice voucher program.
We found school districts have been forced to subsidize the cost of private education for thousands of students who have never attended public school.
We analyzed data from the eight Northeast Ohio school districts that paid more than $1 million in EdChoice vouchers to area private schools during the 2019-2020 school year as part of the program.
Those districts include Akron, Canton, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, Euclid, Garfield Heights, Lorain, Maple Heights, and Parma City Schools.
Out of the 6,319 students who received EdChoice vouchers, we found 4,013, or 63.5%, were never enrolled in the district left footing the bill for their vouchers.
In other words, EdChoice vouchers often use public dollars to subsidize private education for families who had always planned to pay for private school.
"We think it's fundamentally unfair,” said Parma City Schools Superintendent Charlie Smialek.
Any student assigned to Valley Forge High School or Parma High School became eligible for an EdChoice voucher this school year, despite the district’s overall grade improving from a D to a C.
Smialek said 356 students applied for and received the vouchers this school year.
However, 336 of those students have never been enrolled in the Parma City School District.
"They never were our students,” said Smialek. “They never set foot in a Parma City Schools building or school.”
"We are really just using the scholarship dollars to fund a choice that had been made potentially 10 or 12 years ago,” he said.
Who got paid?
As a result, Parma City Schools paid $2.1 million from its budget to fund private schools during the 2019-2020 school year.
So where did Parma’s voucher money go?
We found most of the money was transferred to three religious high schools.
- Padua Franciscan High School in Parma received $960,000 for 160 students.
- Holy Name in Parma Heights received $478,000 for 80 students.
- Lutheran High School West in Rocky River received $172,000 for 32 students.
“It’s frustrating from a standpoint that, again, we want to continue to be competitive, we want to continue to offer the best possible education… that we can for our children, and yet, we continue to get squeezed,” said Smialek.
'Out of control’
"EdChoice is totally out of control,” said Liz Kirby, the new superintendent of Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District. "If the state wants to support that type of education, they shouldn't punish school systems for it."
Kirby said her district was forced to transfer $7 million to area private schools just this school year.
“We really are stopped in our tracks in terms of what we're able to offer and plan to offer in the district for our families,” she said.
On top of that, like Parma City Schools, Kirby said almost every student who received an EdChoice voucher for the current school year has never been one of the district’s students.
We found 1,326 of the 1,406 students who received EdChoice vouchers were never enrolled at any of their schools.
“We’re not serving those students,” said Kirby. “We are now using our funds that are to serve all of our over 5,000 students to cover the cost of those vouchers.”
Where did the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district's money go?
We found more than half of it was transferred to two private, religious elementary schools:
- Hebrew Academy of Cleveland received $2,040,373.50 for 438 students.
- Yeshiva Derech Hatorah received for $1613,736 for 347 students.
A fundamental problem
"I think we have a fundamental problem and that needs to get fixed,” said Huffman.
Without the 11th hour amendment, even students at Parkside Elementary in Solon, long considered the best district in the state, would be eligible for EdChoice vouchers.
That's because the district’s high-performing students failed to show enough improvement on state tests from year to year.
"It's a little bit like looking at Ohio State and saying 'Well, you only finished 3rd in the nation this year instead of winning the national championship, so you're a failing football program,'” Huffman said.
He would like to see the program become income-based instead of performance-based, but said he stands by his decision to expand the program.
"I don't regret voting to expand choice for families in the state of Ohio,” he said.