Bill would allow all Ohio kids to attend private schools using state dollars
The legislation, known as the "backpack bill," allows universal vouchers for all students, regardless of family income.
About 35,000 Ohio K-12 students currently receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools under the EdChoice program. But there’s a new bill that would make it possible for all of the state’s students to get vouchers if they want them.
Columbus resident Ben Douglass says his second-grade daughter was suffering from debilitating anxiety that kept her from even getting out of bed. So, he removed her from the public school she was attending and enrolled her in a private one with a voucher from the EdChoice program.
“Her test scores are incredible. Her happiness is great. Emotionally, academically, even spiritually, she’s just flourishing and feels so comfortable where she’s at,” Douglass says.
Because his daughter’s public-school building was considered failing and because his family made less than 250% of the federal poverty level, Douglass qualified for the EdChoice program. But many Ohioans don’t because they make too much money or live in a school district that is too high performing. Republican Rep. Riordan McClain (R-Upper Sandusky) says his bill to create a universal voucher program that changes that.
“We want to fund students, not systems, and empower parents to make the best decisions for their children,” McClain says.
Rep. Marilyn John (R-Shelby) says, the way it stands now, some students get left behind in public schools. And she says that’s unacceptable.
“One size fits all doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for most things and it certainly doesn’t work for education. And the backpack bill solves that problem,” John says.
Aaron Baer is the president of the Center for Christian Virtue, which calls itself Ohio's largest Christian public policy organization. Baer says this bill will allow parents to choose schools that align with their values. For example, he says parents in the Upper Arlington School District who were upset when the schools implemented gender-neutral bathrooms had no recourse but to accept that decision.
“All of their high schools and I believe their middle schools as well decided they were going to have single sex bathrooms so boys were going to be allowed to use the stall right next to a girl through those developmental times of life. And all of those children in Upper Arlington were forced to use those restrooms, whether the parent liked it or not. And they had no option to go elsewhere because most of those families were not eligible for EdChoice. A bill like this would be able to say, ‘look, Upper Arlington, if this is what you want to do, if this is the policy you want to have, ok, but now we are going to take, those families are allowed to go elsewhere,'” Baer says.
Backers of the bill say vouchers up to $7,500 would follow each child to the private school they choose. But even though 164,000 kids in Ohio attend private schools, along with 60,000 that use some sort of state-paid voucher, supporters of the bill claim that won’t take a lot of money away from public schools.
“This idea that it’s not going to cost any more is just a sham,” says Bill Phillis.
Phillis is a long-time public school advocate whose lawsuit over the property tax-based way of paying for schools got the system declared unconstitutional in 1997. The state has been trying to come up with a way to fund schools fairly ever since.
The value of EdChoice vouchers was increased in the most recent state budget. An analysis of that increase by the Ohio Education Policy Institute, which does research for the major public education groups, shows those increases could cost the state nearly $283 million over the next two years. And this bill would add to that.
Phillis says the goal of this bill is to dismantle common public education.
“It’s a global attempt to take stuff away from the public and put it into the private and when that happens, poor people end up with the short end of the stick,” Phillis says.
Phillis says any way you cut it, this would take money away from public schools.
“If Upper Arlington is getting $2000 from the state and it takes $7500 for a high school student to go to a scholarship, that’s taking money out of the pool of money that’s not going to be available across the state to the other districts," Phillis says.
Phillis says the money will be ripe for misuse and abuse as opportunists quickly set up fly-by-night schools to turn a profit.
“Give parents the opportunity to home school and give them a voucher for homeschooling and there will be a proliferation of that sort of thing going on and instead of using the money for education, some of the parents, now we have great confidence in most parents but some of the parents would be buying off-track four-wheelers as opposed to providing the money for education. We know there are parents out there who resist this whole compulsory education idea.”
Supporters of this bill say the state will have oversight of those dollars. But that’s no consolation to Phillis.
“We know that the state doesn’t really monitor. ECOT is a good example. The state doesn’t really monitor these types of private operations. ECOT got caught with a $60 million fraud one year. Well, they were operating the same way for the previous 15 years and the state had no clue about it. Or they chose to have no clue about it,” Phillis says.
But this bill would not cover students who want to go to a different public school. So, it wouldn’t require school districts that don’t allow open enrollment to do so.