Proposed law would allow private school vouchers for more Ohio students

Public school groups oppose the bill; a lawsuit on the topic is still winding its way through Ohio courts

A new bill in the Ohio Senate seeks to expand the private school voucher system to all families in the state — a topic that has been the subject of political fights and lawsuits in Ohio in recent years.

Senate Bill 11 would eliminate the income and geographic restrictions on who can get school vouchers in the 2023-2024 school year — essentially, last year’s “Backpack Bill,” but without the savings accounts that could be used at either a private or public school.

The bill also would eliminate the voucher system that is specific to Cleveland schools and expand the homeschool tax credit from $250 to $2,000. The amount of voucher or scholarship money allowed for elementary and high school students would remain the same, at $5,550 and $7,500, respectively.

“Every parent has the right to choose a school that best meets their student’s needs, and I look forward to this bill allowing Ohio’s parents to make those choices,” said northeast Ohio State Sen. Sandra O’Brien, the primary sponsor of the bill, also known as the Parent Educational Freedom Act.

O’Brien declined an interview on the bill, but Brandon Smith, a senior legislative aide for O’Brien, said the bill should cover all students who are currently in private school who don’t qualify for vouchers.

While Senate Bill 11 has not yet undergone a fiscal impact review — a research document the statehouse staff will put together for lawmakers — the previous “Backpack Bill” had a potential cost of between $150 million and nearly $1 billion in the first year.

The state spent about $11 billion on education in 2021 and 2020 and about $12.5 billion in 2022. Analysis for a similar bill to Senate Bill 11 from last legislative session estimated the cost of the voucher program will increase by net amounts of $527.6 million in fiscal year 2024 and $527.9 million in fiscal year 2025 and following years.

Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Currently, families whose children would attend underperforming public schools, as deemed by the state’s report cards, or families who meet a low-income requirement, can use “EdChoice” vouchers to fully or partially offset the cost of sending their children to private schools. But the state legislature has made repeated attempts in the last two years to change that and expand the voucher to all Ohio families.

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

The voucher system is facing another challenge in Ohio: a lawsuit, run by a group called Vouchers Hurt Ohio, which says the voucher system is illegal under Ohio’s constitution. The lawsuit is moving forward in Franklin County court.

Public school districts have expressed concern the program could take away funding from the approximately 1.5 million students in Ohio who attend traditional public schools, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Fordham Institute, which supports school choice and charter schools, said for many families, a private school may be financially out of reach even if it’s a better option for their child.

“In the end, what is most important is that all parents in Ohio have the opportunity to pick the school that works for their kid,” Churchill said.

The Ohio School Boards Association, which represents hundreds of public school boards in the state, is opposed to the bill.

“We believe that Ohio should update and fully fund the Fair School Funding formula before engaging in any type of voucher expansion,” said Jennifer Hogue, director of legislative services for OSBA. “Granting state-funded vouchers reduces the level of funding available to support and improve the public school system to meet the needs of the students that have chosen to attend their public school.”

She added that OSBA has concerns about Ohio growing the voucher program this quickly without including additional accountability to Ohio taxpayers, arguing that any school that takes a voucher should be subject to the same report card requirements as public and charter schools and be required to undergo audits.

“Any expansion of the voucher program should be accompanied by academic accountability,” she said.

Studies of Ohio’s voucher system have shown varying academic outcomes. A 2016 study found voucher students at private schools performed worse on state tests than comparable students who remained in struggling public schools. A 2022 study found that the average school district exposed to performance-based EdChoice saw student achievement improve.

Even if this bill does not pass, there are likely going to be expansions of the EdChoice system. Andrew Brenner, chair of the Ohio Senate education committee, said this week he planned to push for no income restrictions for EdChoice in the budget.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in his State of the State speech this week he wanted to expand Ohio’s EdChoice program to allow any family earning less than 400% of the federal poverty level — up from 250% of the federal poverty level — to be eligible for a private school voucher.

All in for Ohio Kids, a group that includes teacher unions, opposed the measure.

“Legislators should avoid competing funding obligations, such as an expansion of private school vouchers or charter schools, that would hinder our ability to fully fund the public schools that 90% of Ohio students attend,” All in for Ohio Kids said in a statement.

The Fordham Institute said the proposed EdChoice changes would be welcome, and said, “raising the income-eligibility threshold for EdChoice vouchers will give working-class families access to private schools that are otherwise out of reach.”

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