Backpack bill: Great tool for families or scourge to public schools?

Advocates for public, private schools differ on bill that would open private school vouchers to all.

A bill recently introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives would expand the current school voucher system to all Ohio families.

The “backpack bill” would allow certain private school students who have previously not been eligible for vouchers to take advantage of the program, as well as potentially adding new families to the program whose children currently attend public schools or are homeschooled. Opponents say the change comes at the cost of funding Ohio’s public schools.

Currently, only families who live in underperforming public school districts (per a state definition) or who meet a low-income requirement can use state dollars to send their children to private or charter schools that charge tuition. The new bill would expand eligibility and allow families to use between $5,500 and $7,500 in state dollars to send their child to private school, or allocate that money back to their public school.

ExploreDayton Public School nurse named Ohio’s School Nurse of the Year

If passed, it would replace the old system for which many families who reside in the Dayton Public School district currently qualify, but children eligible for special needs and autism scholarships would not fall under this bill expansion.

Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, said it makes sense for parents to have more choice about where they can send their kids to school.

“I think that’s the most important thing is that we get a policy where the money follows the kid to whatever choice that works best for the kids and the families,” he said.

ExploreDorothy Lane Market bagger headed to National Championships for second time

Will Schwartz, deputy director of legislative services at the Ohio School Boards Association, which opposes the bill, said the new bill would potentially have a greater effect on suburban schools, where families who would not have qualified for the program previously due to income levels may take advantage of the project.

“There’s a strong possibility that you would see students, either public or private school students who reside in non-voucher eligible areas, taking a voucher to participate in this program in a private school because this is expanding,” he said.

Right now, it’s not clear how much the bill would cost. Estimates range between $150 million to close to $1 billion in the first year, on top of the approximately $11 billion the state has spent on education in each of the last two years.

ExploreCDC releases new framework for measuring community COVID-19 levels

State Rep. Riordan McClain, R-Upper Sandusky, one of the cosponsors of the bill, said he doubts there will be a large increase in additional spending right away, because people weren’t quick to adopt the current EdChoice voucher system. But McClain also noted it makes sense to spend additional funds on education.

The bill would also affect families in different parts of the state in different ways. In a large city like Dayton, many children are already eligible for state funding to go to a private school. In a rural area, there may not be any private or charter schools to attend.

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, which represents schoolteachers across Ohio, said the bill could also lead to higher property taxes, which is another way public schools fund themselves. If local districts need to make up losses from funding the expansion, which the OEA believes will happen, asking the property owners to raise their taxes may be the solution, he said.

Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati said he is in favor of education being the parent’s choice. He said Catholic schools in the area have a good academic reputation and a fair number of children in Catholic schools are not Catholic.

“I do think that education should be parental choice,” Schnurr said.

Elizabeth Lolli, superintendent of Dayton Public Schools, said she is not in favor of expanding the school voucher system, which she said has already hurt Dayton Public Schools. She said her concern was that money would be diverted from public schools to pay for private schools.

“My concern is that you’re robbing public school to pay for private school education,” Lolli said. “So how is that equitable?”

About the Author