Behind the curtain of Ohio school choice

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In case you missed the headlines, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson recently resigned. Though a few scandals have plagued the district as of late, the one that spurred Wilson’s resignation was personal. He bypassed the citywide school lottery system to enroll his daughter in a high-performing school.

Wilson’s actions must be condemned as a misuse of power and a violation of public trust. He should not have circumvented district policies for his family’s benefit, and his resignation is warranted.

That being said, it’s not hard to understand why he did it. Based on media reports, the school that his daughter initially enrolled in—an arts magnet school—turned out to be a bad fit. Rather than keeping her in a school that didn’t work for her, Wilson did what most parents would do: He searched for a better option. Unfortunately, this meant using his power and connections to transfer his daughter into a high-performing school. Given these facts, it’s clear that he wanted his daughter to attend an academically strong school that was also a good fit for her. 

Wilson’s situation isn’t unique. Whether it’s a low-performing school, a school that isn’t the right fit, or both, tens of thousands of Ohio families have found themselves in the same position. The Buckeye State is considered a national leader in school choice. So, in theory, its families should have a menu of educational options. But how accessible are they? Let’s take a look at a few of the most common ways parents choose schools.

Option 1: Move to a new district or neighborhood

If you don’t like the schools in your neighborhood or school district, then you could pack up and move somewhere else. In fact, many parents specifically choose their homes based on their perceptions of local school quality. But many of the best schools in Ohio are located in affluent suburbs, where housing prices are high. Some people have used the addresses of family members or friends to avoid high real estate costs and gain access to better schools. But that’s a risky move. Districts have admitted to tailing parents to check for residency, and at least one mom was already sent to jail for lying about her home address. This is likely the most common method of school choice, but it’s also time-consuming and very expensive.   

Option 2: Open-enroll in another district

This form of choice permits students to attend public schools that are outside their district of residence—but only if the receiving district has available space and chooses to admit non-resident students, and only if parents are able to transport their children to the alternative. This is a feasible option for families in rural and small-town Ohio, where almost all districts permit this. But unfortunately, very few of the state’s affluent suburban (read: high performing) districts allow non-resident students to attend. Fordham’s open-enrollment report found that Ohio’s largest inner cities—including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus—are surrounded by districts with closed borders that exclude tens of thousands of nearby low-income and minority students from going to better schools.

Option 3: Enroll in a charter school

Approximately 110,000 Ohio children attend charter schools. Many of these schools are doing remarkable work with their students, who often come from low income households. Unfortunately, state law prohibits new brick-and-mortar charters from opening in many geographic areas, so lots of Ohioans—especially in rural areas—only have access to virtual varieties.

Option 4: Enroll in a private school

Ohio families have sent their children to private schools for over a century. But not everyone lives near one. And they charge tuition, sometimes a significant amount, which automatically excludes the majority of low and lower-middle income families unless the cost is subsidized. That’s where vouchers come in. The EdChoice, Jon Peterson, Cleveland, and Autism Scholarship Programs offer state-funded private school scholarships to Ohio students. But they have several stipulations that limit their accessibility. Vouchers can only be used at participating private schools—and many of the most sought after schools in the state don’t participate. Those that do aren't required to accept eligible students, so parents who want a voucher and live near a participating school still might be unable to enroll their child. And to be eligible for a scholarship, a student must have a disability, live in Cleveland, be assigned to attend a low-performing school, or have an income below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Income eligibility is also restricted by grade level—only students in fifth grade or below are eligible for the 2018–19 school year—and by available funds.

Option 5: Homeschool

Thousands of Ohio families homeschool their children each year. But it’s not a viable option for the vast majority of parents. This could be because both parents work full-time, because the family doesn’t have access to a nearby co-op they like, or because the out-of-pocket expenses are just too steep.

Option 6: Keep your child at his or her assigned traditional public school

This is the most common path for Ohio families. For some it’s a good, conscious choice. But for many, due to all of the aforementioned barriers, it’s their only option. It’s also sometimes a bad one that condemns their child to a low-performing or ill-fitting school.


Ohio has a robust system of school choice, but it still excludes far too many of the families that need it most. This is why thoughtful state policy is so important. The decisions made in the legislature and the governor’s office aren’t philosophical debates or theoretical dilemmas. They affect real families who are trying to do right by their children. Ohioans deserve quality choices and plenty of them, and the officials that they’ve elected should work to empower—not hinder—this freedom. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.