Nearly 87,000 apply for Ohio's new universal voucher program, more than triple last year

Nearly 87,000 applications were submitted for Ohio's new universal school voucher program − more than triple the total number enrolled in the previous school year.

It's not yet clear what the final bill will be, but a September analysis from the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau found the vouchers had likely already exceeded estimates.

Students had to be enrolled in private school as of Saturday to apply for and receive the EdChoice Expansion, the name for Ohio's income-based vouchers. Individuals can still apply for the voucher through June 30.

More: 1,000 applications a day: Ohio's new universal voucher program exceeds cost estimates

As of Saturday, 86,999 applications had been filed and 41,120 were approved for the 2023-2024 school year, according to the Ohio Department of Education. That's more than triple the 26,578 applications for the 2022-2023 school year. (24,320 were ultimately awarded vouchers, according to state education data.)

The skyrocketing applications come after lawmakers expanded eligibility to all Ohioans in the state budget earlier this year. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade are eligible for up to $6,165 per year and high school students can receive up to $8,407 annually.

Families with incomes at or below 450% of the federal poverty rate, which is about $135,000 for a family of four, are eligible for the full amount. Those who make more would get an increasingly smaller sum of at least $650 annually for K-8th and $950 for high school.

“This shows the strong interest, appreciation and need for the program," Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said in a statement. "When you give parents options for an educational environment that is a better fit for their child, they’re going to act on it.”

Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro disagreed, saying his organization believes most of the applicants are current private school students. "It’s essentially a government handout that not surprisingly they want to take full advantage of."

What is the cost?

When Ohio's two-year budget was drafted, the Ohio Legislative Service Commission estimated that the program would cost $397.8 million for the fiscal year 2024 and $439.1 million in FY 2025.

Ohio Department of Education did not have information Monday about how many applicants would be eligible for the full sum, a necessary data point to determine the total cost of the program. As of Sept. 6, approximately 92% of awards were for students who will receive the full amount.

Of the more than 41,000 vouchers awarded so far, 77% are for K-8 and 23% are for high school students.

DiMauro said the final bill will be hefty, matching the large number of applications.

"It’s a big number," DiMauro said of applicants. "I think a lot of the proponents of voucher expansion were lowballing estimates during the legislative process."

Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Nearly 87K apply for Ohio's new universal voucher program