The fight over expansion of Ohio's school voucher program heats up
An expansion of Ohio’s school voucher program to include nearly all K-12 students would cost more than $1 billion dollars in its the first year, according to an analysis by researchers for state lawmakers. Now some Republicans who have been supportive of universal vouchers in the past are now pushing back.
Meanwhile, public school advocates are pleased the school funding plan that started its six-year phase-in in the last budget is funded for the next two years, but they’re hoping for more.
Rep. Jon Cross (R-Kenton) has signed onto the Backpack Bill – which would expand vouchers to all public, nonpublic and homeschooled students. But funding for that expansion isn't in the House version of the budget as it stands now. But the K-12 finance plan known as the Fair School Funding Formula is in the House budget.
But advocates for universal vouchers want funding for the Backpack Bill restored. Cross lambasted Donovan O’Neil with Americans for Prosperity when O’Neil asked the House Finance Committee to restore Backpack Bill funding that was gutted in the House budget.
“You ask for school choice that’s going to cost us billions of dollars but then make a snarky comment that we are spending more money. Wouldn’t we be better off taking some money in our budget to fix the schools because I’ll tell you what – I really like my public schools," Cross said.
Cross went on to explain he sends his own kids to the local public schools where he once attended. And he used some colorful language in making his point.
Republican State Rep. Jon Cross goes off on Donovan O'Neil with Americans for Prosperity in this morning's House Finance Committee meeting. O'Neil wants expansions of Ohio's voucher program. Cross wants the state to focus on funding for public schools instead. #Ohio #education pic.twitter.com/qzgO7rGk3O— Jo Ingles (@joingles) April 20, 2023
Cross left the room after making his comments but O'Neil continued to address the situation.
"Out of the $6 billion that we are spending, we are spending it in ways that do a little bit of everything for everybody. And often times you say, 'well, that's pretty good, right, because we've got to make sure everybody is a little bit happy.' Our argument, our reason for being here, my reason for being here is we need to do the big, bold, transformative things so if we are going to spend $6 billion more in the GRF (general revenue fund) money from where we were in 2022 to 2025, let's prioritize that into giving all Ohioans a flat tax rate and let's prioritize making sure all students in the state of Ohio have access to an Ed Choice voucher," O'Neil said.
Following the meeting, House Finance Committee Chair Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville) said that interchange got a little out of hand but he said good questions were raised during the discussion. Edwards said going to universal vouchers was not part of discussions in this budget.
"Not really. It has a big price tag. And so we are talking to a lot of people who want more money for career tech or other places, direct service providers. I would love to get them to $20 an hour. I think where we landed, we gave a little bit to a lot of people," Edwards said.
Edwards noted the money in the budget for the Fair School Funding Plan, a formula that was developed in the last General Assembly to help reduce reliance on property tax to fund schools.
That's something advocates for public schools have been clamoring for. In a press conference at the Statehouse Thursday, a coalition of public school backers urged legislators to "finish the job and deliver on their promise to fully fund our public schools – no exceptions."
Some students from suburban Columbus schools said they want to see lawmakers address inequities in school funding.
Caroline Kuiken, a Bexley High School student, said she goes to a school that provides her with excellent facilities but explained some of her friends in the nearby Columbus City Schools don't.
"Why aren't basic needs met at my friend's schools? They can't go to the bathroom because the ceilings collapse and there are rats in the walls," Kuiken said.
By contrast, some students of Columbus Alternative High School, one of the highest performing schools in the Columbus City School district, said they were tired of having "heat days" where they couldn't attend school due to buildings being too hot because of lack of climate control systems.
One of those students, Aisha Abdinuir, said she attended a Columbus middle school where she sat next to a broken air conditioning unit that was being repaired often.
"Some days it would work for a few minutes then start spewing out random pieces of metal near us," Abdinuir said.
Columbus City Schools recently agreed to fix some of the deficient buildings. But advocates for public schools say more needs to be done to make sure all kids, regardless of where they attend school, have safe, up-to-date buildings and have other infrastructure they need to learn successfully. And they say the state needs to pay for it.