Responding Smartly to the Pandemic, Ohio Expands Private School Choice

COMMENTARY Education

Responding Smartly to the Pandemic, Ohio Expands Private School Choice

Dec 7th, 2020 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Jude Schwalbach

Research Associate and Project Coordinator

Jude is a research associate and project coordinator in education policy at The Heritage Foundation.
The Buckeye State expanded access to the Educational Choice Scholarship program so that children in families with incomes up to 250% of the federal poverty line could participate. SDI Productions/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Many Ohio residents gave thanks at Thanksgiving for the expansion of a private school scholarship for children from low-income families.

The Educational Choice Scholarship is a boon for children whose assigned public school is not a good fit.

The tragic effects of COVID-19 highlight the importance of expanding education options for families.

Many Ohio residents gave thanks at Thanksgiving for the expansion of a private school scholarship for children from low-income families.

The Buckeye State expanded access to the Educational Choice Scholarship program so that children in families with incomes up to 250% of the federal poverty line could participate.

This means that a child from family of four with an income of $65,500 or less is eligible to receive a scholarship; previously, income eligibility was capped at $52,400.

The scholarships also are available to children attending any of 473 schools where 20% of those enrolled are from low-income families or “fall in the bottom 20% of academic performance for the past two years.”

Students may continue to receive the scholarships even if their assigned district school no longer is underperforming.

Under these expansions, half of Ohio children are eligible for the popular scholarship. In the 2019-20 school year, 12,000 students received scholarships.

The Educational Choice Scholarship Program enables participants in grades K-8 to receive $4,650 to pay for private school tuition, while those in high school may receive $6,000. The scholarships cover nearly 90% and about 62% of the average cost of tuition at Ohio’s private elementary and high schools, respectively. Nearly 500 schools accept the scholarship.

What’s more, the average cost of private school tuition in Ohio is only 56% of what the state annual spends per pupil in public schools. In fact, the scholarship program has saved Ohio taxpayers more than $429.2 million.

Expansion of education choice is especially important in light of the unsatisfactory response of district schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a nationally representative Morning Consult poll, more than half of surveyed adults perceived school districts’ response to the disease as average at best.

Even more concerning, as of September, teachers in district schools still were not prepared to facilitate online learning.

Morning Consult’s research indicates that less than a quarter of  these teachers nationwide—23%—said they felt prepared to facilitate online learning—only one percentage point higher than a survey found at the beginning of the pandemic.

On the other hand, 45% of private school teachers said they felt confident in their abilities to facilitate online learning, an increase of 10 percentage points since the pandemic began.

Increasing access to teachers with more confidence in their ability to provide quality online learning by expanding access to private school options could help minimize the learning loss many children have experienced during the pandemic.

The Educational Choice Scholarship is a boon for children whose assigned public school is not a good fit.

African American children in particular stand to benefit, as the Nation’s Report Card in 2019 showed that black eighth-graders in Ohio trail white peers by approximately three grade levels in math and reading. Unsurprisingly, 85% of African Americans in Ohio support the private school scholarship.

High school attainment rates for black students in Ohio stands at 69%, among the lowest in America, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Greater access to private school scholarships has a demonstrated track record of boosting graduation rates—an important milestone in the success sequence.

The pandemic has made clear more than ever that many traditional district schools struggle to provide education continuity to children. Four states—New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Florida, and Pennsylvania—already have proposed private school choice options for families using federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

That’s a step in the right direction. At the same time, the 28 states (plus the District of Columbia) with existing private school choice programs should follow Ohio’s lead and expand access to their programs. And every state should provide emergency education savings accounts to families if their children’s public schools remain closed to in-person instruction.

Ohio policymakers could improve the scholarship by expanding the cap of 60,000 scholarships and allowing parents to use the scholarships to purchase a variety of education expenses.

Already used by five states, education savings accounts give parents control of their children’s education expenses, allowing them to purchase education services and products in addition to private school tuition.

For instance, Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarships are education savings accounts through which parents can buy lawful education expenses such as books, tuition, private tutors, physical therapy, and online courses.

The tragic effects of COVID-19 highlight the importance of expanding education options for families.

Ohio’s expansion of private school scholarships will help more families find the school that is the best fit for them and maintain education continuity during this challenging time.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal