Expansion of School Choice in Ohio: What does it mean for parents and independent school education

Expansion of School Choice in Ohio: What does it mean for parents and independent school education

Making the right choice for your child’s education is an important decision compounded by innumerable factors—from special services your child may need, to which district you live in, to religion, to class size. 

In July, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed House Bill 33, the operating budget, which includes an expansion of state programs to assist more individual families in private school costs and expands eligibility for students, including those with disabilities in qualifying programs. 

EdChoice Scholarship Programs

In Ohio, qualifying families have been able to apply for the Traditional EdChoice Scholarship, which started in 2005 and originally awarded families in “low performing school districts” vouchers to attend participating private and charter schools. 

The EdChoice Expansion Scholarship program provides scholarships to families based on income, rather than school district. 

According to the Ohio Department of Education, “if a family’s household income is at or below 450% of the Federal Poverty Level, they will be awarded the maximum scholarship amount.” For a family of four this translates to a household income of $150,000 or less qualifies for the maximum benefits—$6,165 for grades K-8, and $8,407 for grades 9-12. Families that earn less than 200% of the federal poverty line will not be required to pay any tuition beyond what the stipend covers. Scholarships for EdChoice Expansion are awarded based on the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of a family’s household.

There are some requirements. EdChoice Expansion can only be used for tuition and does not cover any additional fees a school may require. Families must apply every year. Only participating schools accept EdChoice Scholarships, visit education.ohio.gov for the list.

Many have argued these initiatives take funding away from public schools in need of resources. 

Scholarship Programs for Children with Special Needs

Many families don’t know they qualify for help or don’t realize all the ways state dollars can be used toward education.  Jane, mom in Akron (who requested her last name not be used) knows all too well. 

Both of Jane’s daughters are dyslexic and require additional support both in and out of the classroom, however it wasn’t until her oldest was in second grade that they realized state funds were available to them. Through a private tutor Jane found out about the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship (JPSN) which provides funding to parents of children identified to have a disability and can be used for education-related services including tuition and tutoring. The scholarship program received an increase in the amount of awards given to eligible students in the recent bill. 

“It was a huge relief, and the scholarship really allowed us to make the best choice for her, in a public or private school,” Jane says. “We looked at all our options before deciding on the one that was the all-around best fit. Academically, I don’t think we could have made a better decision. Once she got the help she needed, she really excelled and I’m so proud of all the progress she’s made.”

In addition to the JPSN scholarship, Ohio also offers an Autism Scholarship. According to the bill’s language, the act adds a new qualification as well as qualifies a child under one, instead of both, existing qualifications under prior law. Also, a child will be eligible for the program if they have been diagnosed with autism by a physician or psychologist. 

The Cleveland Scholarship awards vouchers to qualifying students in the Cleveland School District. According to the house bill, it permits a Cleveland Scholarship recipient to use the scholarship to attend any private school, without a restriction on the school’s location which is a change from the previous law.

Getting started in the application process can be intimidating.

 “I think there are a lot of amazing programs out there that parents either don’t know about or don’t know how to utilize,” Jane says. “I was in both categories at different times. The information can seem overwhelming initially, as well as properly advocating for your child.” 

Often, the first place to look for help is with the school itself, most of which offer both merit and need-based financial aid of their own. 

While tuition may be a key deciding factor in which school is best for your family, there are plenty of resources available to make it a financial reality.  

Jane encourages parents to do their own research as they move through the process. 

“Overwhelming as may seem, educate yourself as much as possible,” she says. “Trust your instincts. And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel lost or don’t understand. It’s a lot of information and we all want to do what is best for our children.”

Extra Support for Educational Enrichment

New State programs also open up pathways for learning and enrichment outside the classroom. The Ohio After School Enrichment Savings Program (ACE) provides up to $1,000 for students to attend after school programs such as camps, music lessons, or tutoring. ACE was originally developed to combat academic and social-emotional gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, the program was expanded by raising the income limits, increasing the amount of money available, and broadening the types of programming included. 

ACE works like a savings account which parents can use to pay for certain programs for their kids. 

“Parents may be reimbursed for allowable expense or opt to have the service provider paid directly by their ACE funds,” says Lily Bartholomew, program administrator for Educational Options and Policy with the Ohio Department of Education. “They can view how much money is in their account through the parent portal on Merit’s website. Parents can go to educationohio.gov to see what allowable activities they may use ACE funds for. There is also an Education Marketplace that parents can browse to view service providers in their area.”

The State of Ohio is also working to address pandemic learning gaps through a $26 million investment in “high-dosage tutoring.” Under the new program, school districts can apply for funding to offer free tutoring services to students at state funded tutoring programs. Additionally, individual school districts offer tutoring programs, such as Akron Public Schools’ free tutoring programs TutorMe and Support Squad. 

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