How Private Schools Adapt to Vouchers: Five Case Studies from Ohio

State-funded voucher programs have stoked political controversy, culture clashes, and pitched court battles. As voucher programs have grown, much attention has been paid to the students, their performance, and the impact of private-school competition on the public schools they fled. All of this is perfectly understandable, appropriate, and necessary.

Yet given the political maelstroms of vouchers—not to mention the research scrutiny—it comes as a surprise that few analysts or advocates have asked about the private schools that accept scholarship students. As they accept voucher students, what if anything has changed in these schools? Has their character or culture shifted? Has instruction evolved? What are their challenges, and how do these schools overcome them?

To dig into these questions, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute enlisted veteran journalist and former Dayton Daily News editorial-page editor Ellen Belcher. In Spring and Fall 2013, Ellen visited Eden Grove Academy in Cincinnati, Immaculate Conception in Dayton, Saint Martin de Porres High School in Cleveland, St. Patrick of Heatherdowns in Toledo, and Youngstown Christian School. Her profiles of these Ohio schools will appear on beginning today.

What did she discover in these snapshots of school life? First, these are not fairytale private schools of the costly, elite variety. They all struggle to make ends meet, and their educators are forthright about the challenges of instructing students who arrive in their classrooms far behind academically, from disadvantaged families, and sometimes from various religious backgrounds. Sometimes they even concede defeat and must ask a child to leave for the betterment of the rest of the student body—or perhaps for his or her own good.

But it is also evident that these schools remain steadfast, largely undaunted by their financial and academic challenges. They are strikingly mission focused, often with a crusader’s zeal to educate every child that comes through their door, bearing a voucher or not. They are also anchored by deeply held convictions—be they around behavioral standards, educational models, or religious practices—even as the school changes in other ways. Finally, the educators take seriously the task of educating kids well. They don’t tolerate low expectations, inferior instruction, or bad behavior.

In these school profiles, we find a cast of characters who are part entrepreneur, part missionary, part executive, and part pugilist. We find the effervescent president of Youngstown Christian Mike Pecchia and his wife Karen, who also provide a home for two voucher students. We meet people like Chad Harville of Eden Grove, who made financial sacrifices for the sake of the school and its kids. (Harville quit a well-paying government job to become an educator at the cash-strapped school.) There is the tenacious sixty-six-year-old Karyn Hecker of Immaculate Conception, who fights to keep her school financially afloat. We find Deb O’Shea, St. Pat’s principal, who withstands criticism about her school’s decision to accept voucher students, arguing that it has changed the school for the better. We meet Saint Martin de Porres president Rich Clark, who agonizes when a student fails to graduate—even being reduced to tears the first time a student left his school.

We salute the honesty and frankness of the people Ellen interviewed—a legion of educators, parents, and even students. Taken together, their comments depict life in private schools that operate in challenging social contexts and often on shoestring budgets. To be sure, our group of five schools cannot represent all of the private schools that take voucher students. Yet we think that most will agree that these profiles describe five schools with character—schools with pluck, resolve, and tenacity. These schools have adapted in some ways, yes, but they all unswervingly answer the call to educate society’s most at-risk students.

– Aaron Churchill and Chad Aldis

This is drawn from the foreword of Pluck and Tenacity: How five private schools in Ohio have adapted to vouchers, by Ellen Belcher, which was published by the Fordham Institute earlier this month.  Aaron Churchill is Ohio Research and Data Analyst at the Fordham Institute and Chad Aldis is Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy.

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