Demand for vouchers to attend private Toledo schools waned for next school year, abruptly ending a trend of rapid growth.
The Ohio Department of Education received 2,023 applications from Toledo students for the 2012-2013 school year in the EdChoice program, which provides scholarships for students to attend private schools if their public school performs poorly on state standards. That's down from 2,068 the year prior, in contrast to two straight years of 200-plus growth in applications.
The reduction in applicants -- and a corresponding drop in scholarships award -- was a surprise for Toledo Public School officials and meant a positive revision in its budget forecast. It also may be a sign that the school choice wave has started to crest, at least in Toledo.
"I like where we are as a district," Jim Gault, TPS chief academic officer, said. "I like that we are starting to see a stagnation in the numbers."
Statewide, 17,438 applied for the vouchers for this year, a slight increase from last year. What caused the slowdown in Toledo is hard to pinpoint. Mr. Gault cited a relative amount of stability in TPS, after years of cuts and turmoil. And the elimination of middle schools in favor of K8 buildings may have kept some from abandoning the district, because some parents were fearful of the middle schools.
The slowdown in voucher applications, and subsequent additional funds, was cited by district officials when the Toledo Board of Education voted last month to revive several sports programs.
Public schools can lose students to vouchers if they've been performed poorly on state report cards in two of the past three years. For next school year, 18 TPS schools met that definition.
Most vouchers go to Toledo's Catholic schools. Christopher Knight, Catholic Diocese of Toledo schools superintendent, said they have become a major enrollment component for those in central Toledo, with the biggest recipients Central Catholic High School, Gesu Elementary, and two Central City Ministries of Toledo schools -- Rosary Cathedral and Queen of Apostles. The program has largely kept Rosary Cathedral School afloat, with about 75 percent of its students on EdChoice scholarships.
The program redirects funds targeted for public school districts to private schools -- up to $4,250 for elementary students and $5,000 for high schoolers. That meant more than $8 million shifted from TPS toward mostly Catholic schools. Mr. Knight said that although the program has helped stabilize some Catholic schools' budgets, the diocese advocates for vouchers because of benefits to parents.
"That's the fundamental reason why we support the EdChoice program," Mr. Knight said, "because it leads to school choice for parents."
Central Catholic in recent years maintained student enrollment between 1,000 and 1,100 in significant part because of vouchers.
Admissions Director Paul Smith said he expected between 35 and 40 percent of the school will use the EdChoice program next year. That's on par with recent years.
What's changed, he said, is that more students on vouchers are coming to Central from other Catholic schools instead of straight from public schools, meaning families are using the vouchers to enter the Catholic system and are staying.
In the past, students would come straight from TPS high schools or middle schools. "It took a few years for people to realize the opportunities it could hold for them or their family," Mr. Smith said.
It's too early to say if Toledo's student market has matured. Because EdChoice is based on school performance and not income, eligibility changes annually, Mr. Smith said, which affects the total pool schools compete over.
But TPS also projects charter school growth to slow. The district previously projected to lose 500 additional students to charters or vouchers next year. In May of last year, 7,832 students attended charters; that increased only to 8,132, according to Mr. Gault. TPS enrollment is expected to decrease again next year, but Mr. Gault said that decline isn't from school choice.
"I am fearful we are still losing population in the city," he said. "I could make an argument that Toledo Public Schools is gaining market share, even though we are losing students."
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