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Analysis shows Ohio's new universal voucher program already exceeds cost estimates

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The cost of Ohio's new universal school voucher program already appears to be more expensive than initially estimated, according to a published report, and that cost will continue to grow as the application deadline is still more than a month away.

An analysis by The Columbus Dispatch found the state has received applications totaling approximately $432 million for the 2023-24 school year, which is $34 million more than forecasted by the Legislative Service Commission. Meanwhile, the state education department says its receiving between 900 and 1,000 applications daily.

When Ohio’s two-year budget was drafted, the commission estimated income-based vouchers would cost $397.8 million for fiscal year 2024 and $439.1 million for fiscal year 2025. However, voucher interest has skyrocketed since lawmakers expanded eligibility to all Ohioans in the state budget approved in July.

The state awarded 24,320 vouchers for the 2022-23 school year and has received 70,487 applications for the current school year as of Sept. 6, according to the analysis. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade make up 78% of the current applications, which means they are eligible for up to $6,165 per year. The other 22% are high school students who can receive up to $8,407.

If the state awards full scholarships to all those students, that would total $470 million for this fiscal year, though the report notes that not every student is eligible for a full scholarship. Families with incomes that exceed 450% of the federal poverty rate get less money as their salaries rise until they bottom out at $650 annually for K-8 and $950 for high school.

State education officials could not provide specific numbers for each income bracket in the voucher program, but a department spokeswoman said about 92% of awards made so far were for students that fell in the lowest (450% of federal poverty rate or lower) income band.