Officials in Ohio say they have been forced to turn away more than 1,100 Cleveland parents hoping to send their children to private schools using state- financed vouchers, in part because of a surge in applications following this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the voucher program.
After the June 27 ruling, Cleveland parents inundated the Ohio Department of Education with requests for the publicly financed tuition aid, racing to meet a July 31 deadline for applying.
In the month before the deadline, the department received 648 applications, compared with just 163 for July of last year, said Saundra Berry, the department’s director of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, as the state-enacted program is formally known.
“This year was crazy,” she said last week.
Overall, applications to the program rose from about 2,100 last year to more than 2,700 this year, an increase of 29 percent, Ms. Berry said. That total doesn’t include applications that were considered incomplete and were returned.
Ms. Berry said she doubted the flood of last-minute requests came from parents who had been waiting to see how the high court would rule in the case challenging the constitutionality of the 6-year-old program, which allows parents to use the tuition aid at participating religious or secular private schools.
Instead, she suggested that the publicity surrounding the landmark decision got the word out to many Cleveland residents who hadn’t previously realized they were eligible for vouchers.
“I just think there were a whole bunch who basically heard about the program through the ruling,” she said. (“Justices Settle Case, Nettle Policy Debate,” July 10, 2002.)
The upshot is that nearly 1,130 applicants will not be receiving vouchers as the school year gets under way. That unmet demand arose even though Ohio officials increased the slots available in the voucher program by 1,000 for this school year, to 5,523 from 4,523 in 2001-02. The state began awarding vouchers for this school year in February, and by late June it had handed out more than 86 percent of the total new awards.
Yet not all is lost for the disappointed applicants: State officials expect some students not to use their vouchers. Once they survey the 50 participating private schools later this month to verify which youngsters actually enrolled, program administrators expect to offer some of the unused aid to other applicants, with priority going to those with the lowest incomes.
Cleveland’s program is targeted primarily at families with incomes no greater than double the federal poverty level. In years past, though, some of the vouchers have gone to those with earnings above that 200-percent-of-poverty threshold because not enough poorer families applied.
Poor Given Priority
This year, one effect of the program’s increased popularity is that the vouchers will probably not be offered to any new families with incomes that exceed the income threshold, said Dorothea E. Howe, a spokeswoman for the Ohio education department’s Center for School Reform and Options.
The amount of the vouchers depends on schools’ tuition, but cannot exceed $2,250 per year. Families below the income threshold can receive vouchers of up to that amount, and are required to pay 10 percent of their children’s tuition. Families above that income level can get vouchers worth up to $1,700 per year, and must pick up 25 percent of the tuition.
About 28 percent of the students using vouchers at the end of the 2001-02 school year came from families above the income threshold, Ms. Howe said. Many of those families had been below that level when their children entered the program, she added.