Private schools preparing for new school year with expansion of EdChoice

The expansion of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program means every Ohio family is now eligible for financial aid for tuition at an approved private school.

The newly passed state budget will spend $2 billion over the next two years for the expansion of EdChoice.

Eligibility now covers not only low-income households. Households earning up to 450% of the federal poverty level, $135,000 for a family of four, qualify for a full scholarship of $6,165 for grades K-8 and $8,407 for grades 9-12.

Families with incomes above 450% are eligible for tuition assistance on a sliding scale. The wealthiest Ohioans earning 751% or higher are eligible for 10% of the scholarship, which is $650 for grades K-8 and $950 for grades 9-12.

Families must first complete the enrollment and admissions process for the private school. Then, they must apply for the voucher, which includes submitting an income verification form to the Ohio Department of Education. More information can be found on the agency’s website.

Private schools across Northeast Ohio have been preparing for the changes. Many expect to see gradual enrollment increases.

Kathy Hammar’s son, Luke, is getting ready to start 5th grade. He’s attended Bethel Christian Academy since kindergarten, but this year his family is receiving tuition assistance for the first time under the expansion of EdChoice.

“It is nice in a time, where you know, prices of things are going up and the economy … is seeing higher rises in prices. It’s nice to get a breather,” Kathy said. “A lot of the families have been relieved to get a little breather with jobs being uncertain at this time.”

She said her family decided to enroll at a private school because they felt it would best suit their son’s needs.

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“With him being on the younger side of the age range for kindergarten, we wanted him to have a small community,” Kathy said. “I had also heard quite a bit about the parental community at this school. And we’re just really so happy to have found it.”

Pastor Jeremy Burnett is the superintendent at Bethel Christian Academy. He said a majority of his study body has received assistance under EdChoice.

This year, he said 23 existing students became eligible, and there are 29 brand new students who are utilizing vouchers. He said the school is looking at a net gain of about 10 to 15 students this school year.

“It is nice that they do have that option; they have that choice to go to a school that more aligns with their beliefs,” Burnett said. “They get a little breathing room (and) they get a little help from the state, so they’re able to do it with a little less stress on the bottom line. Because it is an important thing for some families to have that Christian school environment.”

The Ohio Legislative Service Commission estimates about 90,500 students existing private school students will now be eligible for EdChoice. For fiscal year 2024, they estimate about 10,000 new EdChoice scholarships for public school kids transferring to private schools.

Some private schools are raising tuition.

Burnett said he spoke to a parent whose school was doubling tuition.

“We aren’t going for, ‘Oh EdChoice is now 6,000; let’s make tuition 9,000,” Burnett said. “That’s not who we are. We’re still trying to be a value. It’s a ministry-based school where we want as many people to be able to come in as possible.”

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The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland said it, too, is seeing new interest because of the expansion of EdChoice.

“We’re hopeful that more families will be empowered to choose the school that’s best of them,” said Dr. Frank O’Linn, Superintendent of Schools for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

“We believe that parents are the primary educators of children, and they are best equipped to decide what’s best for that child and where that child’s going to thrive,” O’Linn said.

In terms of tuition increases, O’Linn said some schools are looking to restructure.

“Catholic schools, especially parish elementary schools, have worked hard to keep tuition affordable to parents, drawing on multiple resources to provide quality education as widely as possible,” O’Linn said. “The changes to the EdChoice laws respect this challenge and permit schools until September 30 to report their restructured tuition arrangements.”

O’Linn added, “As encouraged by the recent changes to EdChoice law, some Catholic elementary schools are transparently outlining how much it costs to educate students, including the amount the state will contribute, the commitment of parents or guardians, and the financial assistance that will continue to be provided by the Church and other charitable sources.”

Some education think tanks believe expanded EdChoice will encourage schools not already participating in the program to join. They also believe it could lead to more private schools opening in rural areas.

News 5’s Damon Maloney asked O’Linn about some of the criticism that the vouchers are only benefiting well-off individuals and private schools can be selected in terms of which students they accept.

“Our system strives to be as welcoming as possible to people who desire a Catholic education,” O’Linn said. “While more Ohioans than ever have the opportunity to choose a Catholic school. We are going to be more ready than ever to meet every student’s learning needs who desire the kind of education we provide.”

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Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, said expanded vouchers will only drain resources from public schools.

“The state shouldn’t be in the business of subsidizing a small number of people over the 90% of families that send their kids to public schools,” DiMauro said. “We want to make sure that every single student has the opportunity to attend a high-quality public school. And that means having the resources to fund reasonable class sizes in a well-rounded curriculum.”

Maloney asked DiMauro if families should have the option of public or private- utilizing state vouchers.

“Families should have options, and in fact, there are lots of options already within the public school system for families,” DiMauro said.

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