Students and private schools alike are showing more interest in state tuition vouchers as the statewide program prepares for its third school year.
About 40 percent of the 10,047 applications filed by this year's deadline were for students who had not previously used a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend a private school. The total number of applications was up by about 2,150 from last year.

About 3,500 applications were filed in the first year of the Educational Choice Scholarship Program and 7,900 for this school year. But not everyone who applies is deemed eligible, and not everyone who is awarded a voucher uses it. This year, 6,760 students are using the aid.

Interest from private and parochial schools also is on the rise. Next school year, 49 want to accept EdChoice students, compared with 15 the first year and 33 this year. "I think we've had really wonderful success the past couple of years for the schools that have been in the program," said Lucia McQuaide, superintendent of Columbus' Catholic schools. Some Diocese of Columbus schools were slower to get on board, adopting a "wait-and-see" approach, McQuaide said. But many schools had open seats and were glad to be able to fill them with voucher students.

Cincinnati schools led the state in the number of applications for the third straight year, but the Columbus school district has the most schools with voucher-eligible students, at 56.

For the coming school year, Columbus students filed 1,897 applications for vouchers, up about 500 from this year. Cincinnati, where 29 long-struggling schools were eligible for vouchers, had three more applications for the coming year than Columbus.

Columbus district spokesman Jeff Warner said, "We are seeing a slowdown in voucher interest, and I think to a great degree that's attributed to our improved academic performance as well as new facilities." The Columbus district achieved a C on the state report cards for last school year-- its highest rating ever.

Ohio has 14,000 available voucher slots. Some advocacy groups, such as School Choice Ohio, have worked in recent months to spread the word about the program, making phone calls to parents in schools that are struggling academically. The state education department doesn't do that because it doesn't get funding to do so.

"It's really not a goal of the department to have the program grow or to reach the 14,000 cap," said Kim Murnieks, executive director of the Center for School Options & Finance at the department. "We really are just interested in ensuring the program is being implemented according to the law and that private schools that are participating are in compliance with laws."

School vouchers

The state's Educational Choice Scholarship Program allows students to attend a private school using public money for tuition. Most of the participating private schools in the program, which is in its second year, are parochial.

How vouchers work:

Students apply to the private school they hope to attend. Schools that accept the student--using normal admission criteria--apply to the state for a voucher on the student's behalf.

Who can get vouchers:

As many as 14,000 vouchers are available. Students assigned to public schools that have been in academic emergency or academic watch for three consecutive years are eligible (some Columbus, Groveport Madison and South-Western schools were in that category this school year). This year, 6,760 students are using vouchers, up from 3,141 last school year.

What they're worth:

High-school students can get as much as $5,000. Younger students can use as much as $4,250.

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education