COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A church in Columbus will soon become a school – free from “dangerous curriculum” and hefty tuition costs, thanks to state-funded vouchers.

The Center for Christian Virtue (CCV), a conservative advocacy group based in Columbus, launched a private “microschool” in the Hilltop neighborhood and is poised to open to 45 students in kindergarten through second grade next week.

Operating out of the Memorial Baptist Church on Eakin Road, Westside Christian School – funded through private donations and some public voucher money – was designed to provide gospel-centered education to students who otherwise would have no choice but to attend a low-performing school in their district.

“So many kids are underperforming in the schools that they’re in, so this was really a response – churches rising up and saying, ‘We want to be the solution here,’” said Troy McIntosh, executive director of the Ohio Christian Education Network.

CCV’s idea to launch Westside Christian School hatched as the coronavirus pandemic caused many Ohio schools in 2020 to transition to remote learning. With the lack of a physical classroom for students to work, he said some churches around Columbus acted as makeshift learning centers where students could do homework or log on to a Zoom class.

“These churches have these buildings that are available during the week, and we have students with nowhere to go,” McIntosh said. “Let’s find a way to marry those two things and begin to help churches learn, understand and know how they could open a school in their building.”

‘Need for choice’ in education

Ben Douglass, lead pastor of Hilltop’s Faith Community Church, said Westside Christian School is one puzzle piece in solving what he sees as a larger need for school choice in Ohio.

A 13-year Hilltop resident, Douglass said he and his wife met “person after person” who expressed dissatisfaction with the education either they or their children were receiving.

“It rips your heart out as a parent,” Douglass said. “It was really eye-opening and shocking the last few years to work with kids and families who, on paper, they were getting high grades, but academically, on standardized tests, they were failing.”

McIntosh said CCV is prioritizing the launch of church-based schools in low-income, marginalized areas of Ohio, like the Hilltop.

“A lot of times in these underserved areas, these kids are assigned some of the lowest performing schools in the state,” McIntosh said. “Having a lack of legitimate options for those students to attend is a problem, and we care about those students a lot.”

But Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, said students who use vouchers to attend a private school tend to fare worse on state standardized tests than their public school peers, citing a 2020 Cincinnati Enquirer investigation.

In 88% of the 150 Ohio cities analyzed in the report, a public district achieved better state testing results than a private school.

“If we’re really concerned about student success, if we’re concerned about academic outcomes, I think it’s necessary to look at programs like these (Westside Christian School) with a note of caution,” DiMauro said.

Taxpayer-funded vouchers to afford tuition

Douglass said he has the means to send his daughter – whose grades he said “flourished” after making the switch from public to private – to a Christian school 35 minutes away. But many families in the Hilltop don’t have that luxury, he said. 

Nor do many of them have the $6,500 required to afford tuition at Westside Christian School, he said.

“We thought, ‘How can they get a high quality, Christian education in their backyard at no cost?’” Douglass said.

That’s why students planning to enroll at Westside Christian School are eligible for a $5,500 Educational Choice Scholarship, or EdChoice, a state-funded program designed to give public school students – either low-income or in a designated district – the financial means to attend a nonpublic school.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, 89 schools within the Columbus City Schools district were considered “designated” for EdChoice scholarships in the 2021-22 school year.

DiMauro, however, said the almost-exclusive use of taxpayer dollars through vouchers to fund a religious school “raises a number of concerns” for Ohio students – 90% of whom attend a public school, he said.

It not only blurs the lines between church and state, DiMauro said, but he also argued that the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers at religious schools diverts money away from public schools.

“Ninety percent of Ohio’s children attend Ohio’s public schools,” he said. “This is where we have community, this is where we lift up our students for success, and when you have more and more resources being taken and diverted to non-public alternatives, it really does harm that 90% of students who are still attending our public schools.”

More Christianity, less ‘divisive concepts’

In forming Westside Christian School — and with its sights set on opening 20 more schools within Ohio churches — McIntosh said CCV was not simply concerned about the detriment school closures had on kids during the pandemic.

President Aaron Baer said in a statement that CCV had to respond to the “expansion of dangerous curriculum” like LGBTQ issues and critical race theory – referred to as “divisive concepts” that some state lawmakers are trying to ban from Ohio schools.

“The whole motive behind what we’re doing,” McIntosh said, “is to give parents who want those same philosophies – as opposed to many public schools’ philosophies that are diametrically opposed to their value system – a high-quality school rooted in the same fundamental principles of faith.”