School-choice options have been growing exponentially in Ohio, often with the help of public funding. Options like charter schools, on-line schools, home schooling, even public school collaboratives that draw school-district boundaries differently. But one of the fastest growing options this year is school vouchers.
Ebony Sawyer is a single mom of three in Cincinnati. As she puts it, “it’s me, superwoman does it all.”
She works for the IRS, so we couldn’t meet at her work. This being Cincinnati, we’re sitting around the corner from her office in a Skyline Chili restaurant – the city’s quintessential fast-food joint serving up, well, mostly chili.
Despite the fact that Sawyer is raising her kids alone, and working full time, she pays a lot of attention to their education.
She tells her kids, “summer is not a break. You do have some free time, but you’re always going to learn.”
She was disheartened when the report card for her kids’ public school came out this year, with less than impressive grades.
“It’s not necessarily failing in the sense that they’re not learning anything, but it’s not up to par to my standards,” Sawyer said.
So she submitted her kids’ applications to a nearby private Catholic school, hoping to make use of the state’s voucher program. It’s called EdChoice, and the number of vouchers has more than doubled since the new state budget took effect July 1st. As grade-schoolers, her kids can each get a scholarship worth as much as 4,250 dollars. High-schoolers are eligible for up to 5,000 dollars. She carries the application for the extended admissions process (open through August 15) with her at all times, in case a friend is curious about the program.
One of the things that turned her away from the EdChoice program initially is that most of the 312 private schools in the program are religious. That’s largely because the majority of private schools in the state – more than 80 percent – are religious, most often Christian, and very often Catholic.
Sawyer explained that she first found out about EdChoice because she has “a niece and a nephew that were in the EdChoice program. When they first got into it I was like, ‘hmmm, does it really help?’ That kind of thing. You can get education, ‘cause I never really wanted my children to go to Catholic school because I felt like they could get it somewhere else.”
But eventually, she says she came to like that private schools tend to be smaller and more focused.
“I think you do need that close knit family like atmosphere, with the goal of education in mind as well as getting the religion in there if need be,” she said.
Last year, Ohio had 14,000 vouchers available to students who attend the worst performing schools in the state, those are schools that have been on academic watch or emergency for two of the last three years. This year’s budget expanded that number to 30,000, and next year, it’ll double again, to 60,000. According to Patrick Gallaway of the Ohio Department of Education, the vouchers are not given out on a first-come first-served basis.
There is a “pecking order” he said, and at the top are “renewals.” That means first priority is given to students who used a voucher last year, to make sure they don’t have to switch schools all the time. Then, he said “it goes to those who meet the income level for the federal poverty level.”
The idea there is to provide choice to people who may not otherwise be able to afford a private school.
“The final piece of [EdChoice] would be those who do not meet the level but they may have to go into a lottery if it exceeds the available number of vouchers.”
Essentially, the third tier is every other child who attends a poorly performing public school in the state. But the thing is, even when the pool of vouchers was much smaller, the program has never run out of vouchers for the first two groups. There always have been enough left over for that final third, the people who are interested in the program and do not meet the poverty level. People who could, theoretically, afford a private school.
“The idea with Ohio’s program is it was never about income. Income would only be a tie-breaker if there weren’t enough seats available,” said Chad Aldis, Executive Director of the non-profit group School Choice Ohio.
Aldis says the goal is to get good students out of bad public schools, though he would prefer a program that is available only to families that meet federal poverty guidelines.
But Aldis would also expand the program to any of the state’s public schools regardless of their academic rating because, “generally speaking with the EdChoice scholarship program there’s between 85 and 90,000 students that are eligible each year but typically, and unfortunately, it’s the same students that are eligible each year.”
Ohio State University Assistant Professor Ann Allen’s quarrel with the EdChoice program is not with the details. It’s with the concept of “school choice” itself.
“It’s hard not to support parental choice, right?” she asks.
-Ohio State University Assistant Professor Ann Allen
“We all want people to make the choices that are best for them. But what happens when we have a finite amount of money and we divert it across all these choices is that we are taking big chunks of money away from our district schools so it’s hard for those schools to improve, it’s hard for those schools to actually get better when actually their resources are diminishing.”
Ohio’s Constitution mandates that the state sets up a system of ‘common schools.’ But Allen said the idea of schools as a public right and a gathering place for children of all backgrounds is being pushed aside in favor of giving parents more control over their children’s schools.
“We have really two choices when we think about how we deal with problems,” said Allen. “We can run away from them or we can fight them, the fight or flight thing. It used to be that we would need to use our voices to fight for what it is we wanted in schools but now we can just leave.”
Allen said the students who get left behind at financially drained public schools are those who would need public support the most. The ones whose parents are too poor to drive their kids to a private school even if they get an EdChoice scholarship. Or too busy juggling several jobs. Or too disinterested in their child’s education.
But for people who are deeply invested in their kids schooling, like Ebony Sawyer in Cincinnati, more choice makes it easier to ensure their kids get a good education. In fact, Sawyer says if EdChoice doesn’t work out for her kids, she’ll switch to the night shift, to try out another growing educational trend: homeschooling.
This story is part one of our two-part look at how Ohio families are deciding to educate their children. For part two, on homeschooling, click here.