Classroom stock photo

ASHLAND — All Ohio students will have a more affordable pathway to private and charter schools this fall, regardless of income or location. 

That’s thanks to the state’s budget broadening the EdChoice Expansion program in June. The budget, decided on every two years by the state legislature, was signed by Gov. Mike DeWine on July 3. 

The decision to expand EdChoice has been controversial, with groups like the Ohio Education Association and Ohio Federation of Teachers arguing it will harm public schools. 

Advocates for private education and school choice have celebrated the decision. 

In Ashland, private and public school leaders alike agree the impact of broadening EdChoice Expansion is unlikely to be large in Ashland County. The county encompasses a rural area with limited options for private schools.

Saint Edward School — one of the only private schools in the area — has been part of EdChoice Expansion for four years, going on a fifth. The school serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Its principal, Suellen Valentine, said the state’s decision to expand the program is just a continuation for them.

“We just want to help our students and our parents,” Valentine said. “That is the biggest thing for us. For the students who are already enrolled here especially, it makes it more affordable.”

Steve Paramore, the superintendent at Ashland City Schools, said he doesn’t expect many students will leave his district. Still, he thinks state funding for education should go to the “higher need.” And in his eyes, that’s public education. 

“To me, it doesn’t make sense when we have typically supported public education in Ohio,” Paramore said.

How does EdChoice work?

EdChoice, or the Educational Choice Scholarship Program, allows students from certain public schools to attend participating private schools instead. The program has two different versions of scholarships: traditional EdChoice, or EdChoice Expansion. 

With something like EdChoice, it depends on your location, the need in your community and what stakeholders want out of your school.

shannon lusk, supt. of ashland county community academy

The traditional option gives scholarship funding to students “from designated public schools and in other specific circumstances,” according to the EdChoice website

Usually, that applies to schools that are underperforming in some way. Underperformance can be caused by a number of factors. Test scores, retention of teachers and socioeconomic status are only some pieces used to determine a school’s level of performance.

EdChoice expansion, on the other hand, offers income-based scholarships. This year’s budget increased eligibility for these income-based scholarships.

How did this year’s budget bill change things?

Prior to the new bill, students and families at or below 250% of the federal poverty level qualified for a full scholarship. That’s about $75,000 for a family of four.

Now, students and families at or below 450% of the federal poverty level qualify for full scholarship amounts. That’s $135,000 annually for a family of four — a $60,000 jump in who qualifies for full EdChoice scholarships. 

The full scholarship amount gives $6,165 for a K-8 student, and $8,407 for students in grades 9-12. 

Families making over 450% of the federal poverty level — more than $135,000 per year — will also receive partial scholarships on a sliding scale. 

The new budget bill also included $1 billion to go toward enacting the Fair School Funding Plan, which aims to fix Ohio’s unconstitutional school funding model. 

A series of cases in the 1990s ruled that Ohio’s method of funding public schools through local property taxes violated the state’s constitution. It left poorer areas in the lurch when it came to resources.

The Fair School Funding Plan took four years for the state legislature to craft. It overhauled the current system and proposed funding schools based on the actual cost of educating children. The goal of the plan is redistributing resources to students more fairly.

Location counts

Ashland County’s educational leaders — both public and private — didn’t foresee large numbers of students jumping to private schools as a result of EdChoice’s voucher expansion. 

Cathy Trevathan, the superintendent at Hillsdale Local Schools, and Shannon Lusk of the Ashland County Community Academy, both said part of that is thanks to Ashland County’s rural location.

In fact, Trevathan said Hillsdale has seen more students open-enroll there this year, something she attributed to the district’s new facility.

Lusk, of the Ashland County Community Academy, said she sees the impact of expanded scholarships being larger in more populated areas. 

“With something like EdChoice, it depends on your location, the need in your community and what stakeholders want out of your school,” Lusk said.

It will enable us to continue to provide the best that we can for students.

Suellen valentine, principal at saint edward School

Valentine, the principal at Saint Edward School, agreed with the public school superintendents. She doesn’t foresee large numbers of students departing from public schools in Ashland County and opting to attend Saint Edward School instead. 

According to Valentine, last year, 28 students from across the county’s districts used EdChoice vouchers to attend Saint Edward School.

Saint Edward School isn’t in an area where schools and districts are considered failing. It also serves the entire county, so the private school doesn’t pull too many students from any single public option in the area, Valentine said.

Students who use EdChoice vouchers to attend the school have historically been at or below 250% of the poverty level. 

“I think there’ll be some students out there who are seeking this specific type of education and didn’t think it was affordable, and maybe we’ll get some of those families,” Valentine said. 

She said mainly, the broadening of EdChoice Expansion scholarships will reduce costs for parents. It will especially impact those who didn’t qualify for scholarships before, and now do. 

“It will enable us to continue to provide the best that we can for students,” Valentine said.

Meeting students’ needs

Paramore, the superintendent at Ashland City Schools, said the schools in his district aren’t underperforming. Students aren’t leaving for that reason. Still, Paramore said some students elect to leave Ashland City Schools for individual needs. 

Valentine said that’s the case with students who opt to attend Saint Edward School. Students and families elect to go there for a different kind of education than a public school might offer. 

Other students pursuing individualized options may end up at places like the Ashland County Community Academy, Paramore said. 

Ashland County Community Academy acts as a public district too. It receives much of its funding through grants, which come from the state and elsewhere. 

According to Lusk, the superintendent there, the academy acts as a resource for schools struggling to meet student needs in Ashland County. She thinks it’s a parent’s choice where they want to educate their child, but doesn’t expect EdChoice’s expansion of scholarships to impact her school. 

“Since we specialize in a different style of student, we don’t have many students and parents who’ve expressed interest in private schools,” Lusk said. 

She said she’d support parents and students if they felt a private school would provide better opportunities for their success. To her, it’s not about what school students attend — it’s about what they need to be healthy adults.

The bigger picture

Ashland County’s public schools aren’t likely to see a mass exodus of students thanks to EdChoice’s voucher expansion. Still, some public school superintendents said the issue with it statewide lies with a lack of accountability. 

Jennifer Allerding recently joined Loudonville-Perrysville Exempted Village Schools as superintendent. She came from Galion, where she’d served as superintendent too.

Allerding said a private school once reached out to her asking her how to license a P.E. teacher to become a language arts teacher. That type of licensing switch isn’t something public schools have the ability to do, Allerding said. To Allerding, it indicated a lack of accountability. 

Public school districts — we take everybody. We take all kids, we love all kids, we meet them where they are.

jennifer allerding, superintendent at loudonville-perrysville exempted village schools

“I believe that parents should have choice in things related to their children,” Allerding said. “However, it would be nice to be on the same playing field as everybody else.” 

Trevathan of Hillsdale Local Schools agreed. She said private schools don’t have to follow the same rules as public schools. 

“I think there are a lot of EdChoice programs that do it right, but I think I’ve come across some — not necessarily up in this area — … that [students] may not get the education that they need,” Trevathan said. “Sometimes parents, if they’re not in education, may not realize that. It would be nice if we were all held to the same standard. That’s better for kids.”

With public schools, Allerding said, there comes an investment in the community too. Tax dollars go toward funding the schools. In return, there are checks on public schools to ensure they’re meeting that investment. 

“Public school districts — we take everybody,” Allerding said. “We take all kids, we love all kids, we meet them where they are.”  

Allerding added that private schools have the option to turn away students, including those with disabilities. 

Paramore, the superintendent of Ashland City Schools, said broadening EdChoice Expansion isn’t something he’s angry about, or something he has control over. It’s something legislators decide. While he respects what legislators do, he said he thinks it’d be good for them to talk to the people in the classrooms with students.

“I’m convinced public education is the backbone of this country,” Paramore said.

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Ashland Source's Report for America corps member. She covers education and workforce development, among other things, for Ashland Source. Thomas comes to Ashland Source from Montana, where she graduated...