(JTA) — When Kathy Mioni took over as the principal of Akiva Academy in the post-industrial city of Youngstown, Ohio, the school had 52 students and was in danger of closing within a year.
Seven years later, the Jewish community day school’s enrollment has grown by an even 100 and expanded by two grades — in addition to a preschool and infant care. And Mioni is quick to say why: Two-thirds of the students, most of them not Jewish, have nearly all their tuition paid for by Ohio’s state government.
“School choice has kept Akiva open,” Mioni told JTA. “It’s exploding, actually. We don’t do a lot of advertising. It’s word of mouth. The school choice has breathed new life and functioning into Akiva.”
School choice, the philosophy that government should aid parents in choosing the best school for their children whether public or private, may be greatly expanded should Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, be confirmed. DeVos is the former chair of the American Federation for Children, a leading advocate for school choice, and endorsed it at the opening of her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
“Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist,” DeVos said. “Why in 2017 are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choices for their children?”
Public education advocates have protested school choice, but Mioni and other Jewish school administrators in Ohio are among its supporters. Home to a dozen Jewish day schools, the Midwest state has one of the most robust private school voucher programs in the country. More than a quarter of the approximately 3,000 students attending Jewish day schools receive a state voucher.
Under the voucher program, elementary school students receive $4,650 each in annual private school tuition aid, and high school students receive $6,000, from the state government. Some eligible students qualify for vouchers because their local public school is deemed to be underperforming, while others qualify under a low-income provision. Students with autism and special needs may also receive the vouchers. And the city of Cleveland has its own voucher program, though relatively few Jews live within its limits.
“All the things the broader Jewish community cares about — there’s a recognition that Jewish education is a huge part of that,” said Rabbi Eric Frank, the Ohio director of Agudath Israel of America, a haredi Orthodox group that supports school choice. “Recognizing that cost will prohibit people from attending a Jewish day school leads to more support for policies that will enable them to.”
The voucher doesn’t fully cover tuition in some of the state’s Jewish schools. At Ohio’s largest, the 1,000-student Orthodox Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, it covers less than 40 percent of high-school tuition, which can run $12,500 a year.
Akiva Academy, by contrast, has managed to keep down costs such that the voucher covers nearly all annual fees. That has made the school a draw primarily for non-Jewish students, who Mioni says appreciate its safe environment and high standardized test scores. Of Akiva’s 152 students, only 18 are Jewish, though all students attend daily prayers and receive 90 minutes of Hebrew and Jewish studies instruction every day.
“We always have to prove to the Jewish community and the federation that we’re more Jewish than we were the year before,” Mioni said. “A lot of the non-Jewish children want to buy a hanukkiyah. They sing the Hebrew prayers before they eat.”
Ohio’s school choice program has its critics, of course.
A 2016 study from Ohio State University found that in most cases, the program has negligible academic effects while raising questions about private schools’ transparency and accountability. And some legacy Jewish organizations have long been wary of any government encroachment on Jewish education and tax dollars going to parochial schools. Not only does such funding violate the separation of church and state, they say, but it drains money from the public system.
But with only about 40,000 students out of nearly 1.7 million receiving vouchers statewide, advocates say the program’s effect on public education is negligible.
“The Ohio Jewish community strongly supports quality public schools,” said Howie Beigelman, executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, the state’s Jewish federation network. “I don’t see any evidence that this has taken away from anywhere, that it has been bad for public schools.”
Frank and Beigelman both say that the voucher program has been key to a growing Jewish community in the Cleveland area. The community witnessed a rise of 5,000 people between 1996 and 2011, as compared to a reduction in the overall metropolitan area of about 50,000 between 2000 and 2010.
“They have enabled younger people wanting to stay because they have enabled them to afford Jewish day school,” Frank said. “You have a community that is growing and wants to stay near its shuls and schools. You have more Jewish families moving in.”