Eye on Education

Disgruntled Parents Opt for School Vouchers

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.”

Ida Lieszkovsky / StateImpact Ohio

Ebony Sawyer is disappointed in her local public school, which is why she hopes to use the EdChoice program.

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.

Chad Aldis and his group, School Choice Ohio, advocate for school choice around the state.

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.

“We are taking big chunks of money away from our district schools so it’s hard for those schools to improve.” 

-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.



    The problem with vouchers is that it does not cover the entire tuition amount and the balance is waived for voucher kids. NOT FAIR TO PARENTS WHO DO NOT USE VOUCHERS AND ARE PAYING FULL PRICE.

    • Ranshar1

      Then you should support HB136 which would base a scholarship on a family’s income versus the failing school model.

      • Molly Bloom

        For those reading along at home, Ranshar1′s talking about a bill which would repeal the EdChoice and Cleveland Scholarship programs and establish a new scholarship program based on family income. If this program was enacted, scholarship amounts would be tied to family income.

  • Anonymous

    This article raises many, many concerns for our schools and our children. Beginning with Ms. Sawyer’s comment that “the report card for her kids’ public schools came out this year, with less than impressive grades.” No where does it say that she actually VISITED her children’s school and talked with the teachers, the administration, the guidance counselors, and STUDENTS! How can you determine the quality of any school without visiting it and talking with those involved. She may have been quite surprised how great the teachers could be. Then. she criticized the idea of Catholic/religious schools, yet she gets on the bandwagon. Hypocritical??
    If the idea is to “provide choice to people who may not otherwise be able to afford a private school” then why are these vouchers readily available for people of all income levels? When up to 60,000 students are lured away from public schools, who is left? The comment that “the goal is to get good students out of bad public schools…” breaks my heart. What does that say about the many children LEFT BEHIND?? Are they “bad students” then? (by default.) This is engineering that makes public schools second class, bad schools, for “those kids” that aren’t good enough for private schools. I feel ashamed that in our democracy, there is that sort of classist mindset.
    The “fight or flight” argument is a horrible and cowardly way to look at the problem. How dare anyone run away from any children? Our public schools are Constitutionally provided as a public right. Do vouchers essentially then become unconstitutional if they eliminate the public schools or cause them to be the dumping ground for less successful, but more needy children? Do you suppose then that the public school graduates stand any chance for good jobs, good colleges (if they could even qualify)?
    The author does address the fact that when money is drawn away from the public schools that may need it the most they struggle even more and cannot really improve when the deck is stacked against them .
    The real elephant in the room is student discipline which means parents that aren’t doing their job. Teachers cannot teach disruptive students nor the ones who are not when they are left dealing with classroom management issues that are sometimes impossible for any teacher to handle.. And no one dare say it is the parents’ fault.

  • Mommies4babies

    Sek1949 and nowhere does it say that she didn’t visit her childrens school and do all that she was supposed to do to support her childrens education. It doesn’t sound to me like she was against catholic schools but initially felt like public schools could do the job. And obviously they have failed her, but most importantly, her children.

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    Here is a similar story

    Education reform was one of the major issues addressed by the most recent legislative session when new initiatives were signed into law, including the broadest statewide voucher program in the nation.

    A study released this morning by the Center for Education Policy reviewed 10 years of research on the nation’s voucher programs, showing that students using vouchers did not academically achieve at a higher rate than their public-school peers.

    This conclusion was the only finding supported by several unbiased studies, while others included in the review were supported only by a couple of studies and some by groups that clearly support vouchers or other school-choice options.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/impishtelena Lisa W

    The balance is NOT waived. We pay the difference, 500 dollars, or work off volunteer hours at the school. Each family HAS to volunteer 30 hours a year.People don’t do that in public schools. It means parents network, meet, and know the school and their kids’ lives. Plus the 25 ed choice hours PER CHILD if you do not want to have to pay for it. Many parents’ work’ at the school volunteering.
    My children attend ALL SAINTS and Bishop Hartley. I pay full tuition for the older children. It taxes our finances terribly, I won’t lie. 9k for Hartley a year, 5,200 for the k-8. And it rises each year.
    . My third child, there is no way I could afford his tuition. We do without a lot of things to pay for these schools. But our children are worth it.
    We applied for ed choice, because our local schools are failing the guidelines, and have been for years.I volunteer every morning at drop off, and I volunteer in the class. (We get fingerprinted and background checked with the diocese. They take safety seriously) Public education in ohio costs over 10,000 per child. (look up the facts) this school costs us 5k for our k-8 children. The teachers work far cheaper than the public teachers. But they prefer the respect, the parent involvement, the discipline and structure.
    We’re not costing extra money. We’re just making sure our kids get a better education than is available. I know my kids get better, because my eldest volunteers at the library homework help center. She is saddened by the differences in the education. Older kids who can’t do basics fill Columbus Public Schools. You can’t keep blaming the teachers. Parents have to give a darn.

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