Every child in Ohio would be entitled to a voucher to pay for their education at a private school starting in fall 2023 as part of a plan unveiled by House Republicans on Wednesday.
It would be called the Backpack Scholarship Program, and any Ohio schoolboy could ask for $ 5,500 (K-8 level) or $ 7,500 (9-12 level) a year to spend on tuition fees in private schools, home school supplies, after-school care, fees for advanced placement testing or educational therapies.
“This is a major change in education policy …” said Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, which advocates school choice. “It really opens up the market of opportunities for families.”
EdChoice for all
Ohio has five school voucher programs, and House Bill 290 would essentially replace three: EdChoice, EdChoice Expansion, and the Cleveland Scholarship Program.
These voucher programs require children to live in certain schools or have certain family income.
Instead of limiting those opportunities to specific children, Baer said the bill would allow any child in Ohio, regardless of location or income, to participate.
That’s why it’s called the backpack purse. Money would follow kids wherever they went like a backpack.
However, not all the dollars spent on education would go into this backpack. Much like the current EdChoice scholarship program, the bill would leave local and federal education dollars to public school districts.
“When you take that, you are actually giving up significant amounts of money for your child’s education,” Baer said.
But capturing all those local and federal dollars would require a massive rewrite of the Ohio tax code and most likely a constitutional amendment. It’s far too important at the moment, Baer said. Lawmakers have tried it in the past with no success.
Expanding the ways EdChoice can be used and the number of children it can serve is a much simpler solution.
What do public schools think?
Ohio Education Association president Scott DiMauro called the idea “catastrophic for Ohio children” when the bill was first introduced in May.
At the time, it was only two pages long. Something called a “legislative intent bill” that served as a placeholder for the 185-page proposal presented on Wednesday.
“The first bill was about pushing a conversation,” Baer said. “It’s about pushing for the committee to be heard and getting things done.”
But he’s not the only one pushing.
Bill Phillis, executive director of the Coalition for Equity & Adequacy in School Funding, is rallying school boards in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Ohio’s current school voucher program.
His argument is that Ohio has a constitutional commitment to fund a “complete and adequate” system of public schools and the voucher programs hamper that effort.
“This bill is totally contrary to the responsibility of the legislature for public education,” said Phillis. “This is an affront to the constitution of the state of Ohio.”
Why try this now?
The Ohio and US school board meetings have become increasingly controversial over the past year. Literal fights have erupted over mask mandates, transgender student athletes, and whether a legal concept called Critical Race Theory is taught.
Baer said all these arguments over what is going on in schools have caused some parents to leave the public system for private education, and school choice organizations like his are seeing an opening.
Ohio has become more of a school-friendly choice over the years, and the current Senate Speaker is a long-time supporter of the good guys. But right now the parents are really engaged. Why not give them more options?
“If public schools want parents to stop showing up for school board meetings, let them bring a scholarship to the school of their choice,” Baer said. “Looks like you don’t want those parents in your school anyway.
This story will be updated.
Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal, and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.