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Proposals would bring dramatic change to Ohio's voucher program

Students and parents rally at the Ohio Statehouse in support of possible changes that would increase eligibility for taxpayer-funded school vouchers to K-12 students statewide on Thursday, May 17, 2023, in Columbus, Ohio. Advocates applaud the changes as expanding school choice but opponents say such programs divert funding from public schools and violate Ohio's constitution. (AP Photo/Samantha Hendrickson)
Samantha Hendrickson
/
AP
Students and parents rally at the Ohio Statehouse in support of possible changes that would increase eligibility for taxpayer-funded school vouchers to K-12 students statewide on Thursday, May 17, 2023, in Columbus, Ohio. Advocates applaud the changes as expanding school choice but opponents say such programs divert funding from public schools and violate Ohio's constitution. (AP Photo/Samantha Hendrickson)

Ohio parents could soon see more taxpayer money in their pockets to help send their schoolchildren to private and religious schools, or fund homeschooling, under changes to a voucher program that Republican state lawmakers and the governor must hammer out by month’s end.

Ohio has had some form of vouchers since 1996, but learning setbacks prompted by pandemic-era education disruptions, cultural battles over gender and race, and a national movement for parental rights have led to a larger push in Ohio and other states to make them more widely available.

Advocates applaud it as expanding school choice, while opponents say such programs divert funding from public schools and violate Ohio's constitution.

Here’s a look at where things stand and where they could go:

THE CURRENT SYSTEM

School vouchers are state-funded and distributed through the Ohio Department of Education's EdChoice Scholarship Program. Children are eligible if they attend certain underperforming public schools or come from low-income households — at or below 250% of the federal poverty level, or about $75,000 a year for a family of four.

The program, which parents must apply for, provides $5,500 for K-8 students and $7,500 for grades 9-12 to fund tuition.

More than 60,000 students use EdChoice as of 2023 at an annual cost of nearly $350 million, according to Ohio's Office of Budget and Management.

COMPETING PROPOSALS FOR CHANGE

In January, via his version of the state budget, GOP Gov. Mike DeWine announced a proposal to increase income eligibility for vouchers to those at or below 400% of the federal poverty level, or about $111,000 for a family of four.

The Republican-dominated Ohio House cleared its version of the $88 billion budget in April, which raised the eligibility threshold to up to 450% of the federal poverty level, or $135,000 for a family of four, sending the bill to the GOP-led Senate to debate.

Hints at where negotiations could lead may be found in similar, competing voucher bills in the two chambers.

Dubbed “backpack bills” because the funding follows students wherever they go, both legislative proposals seek to make vouchers available to all of Ohio’s K-12 students, regardless of income, whether their schools are considered underperforming and even if they already attend chartered private schools.

The House bill would further extend the vouchers to unregulated, non-chartered private school and homeschooled students.

THE COSTS OF CHANGE

How much money the state could spend on the program is not entirely clear.

The budget office estimates that DeWine's proposal would add $50 million to the current program's cost of nearly $700 million over the next two years.

The cost projection is based on scholarship program trend data and the estimated spaces available at participating private schools for public school students.

Meanwhile, lawmakers’ analysts at the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission estimate extending voucher eligibility could cost up to an additional $344 million over the next two years. That’s assuming that all of the approximately 30,000 newly income-eligible students already attending private schools take vouchers.

Analysts also estimate that the Senate's voucher proposal would cost $528 million per year if the over 90,000 newly eligible students already attending private schools use vouchers. That would not include eligible public-school children.

But the House bill could cost a whopping $1.13 billion annually, the commission estimates. That figure includes more than 185,000 students already attending private schools or being homeschooled, but not those in public schools.

No state analysis addresses the impact the additional costs could have on current public school funding.

Like DeWine's approach, the lawmakers' proposals could have lower costs if not all students seek vouchers. After all, many parents love their public school systems and private schools lack the capacity to accept every newly eligible child.

ADVOCATES AND OPPONENTS

Advocates for vouchers applaud them as a way to make all schools in Ohio better by making different types of schools compete.

They also allow parents the freedom to choose, said Troy McIntosh, executive director of the Ohio Christian Education Network, rather than having their ZIP code choose for them.

Opponents, including Democrats and teachers' unions, fear that as more state money is directed to private schools, less will be available to support the public schools that serve about 80% of Ohio's children.

Voucher supporters say they aren't concerned about the price and believe that high-cost estimates predict an unlikely outcome — that every eligible child will take a voucher.

But opponents point out that except for the administration's estimate, no analysis takes into consideration the cost of public school students using vouchers to attend private schools.

There are also accountability concerns with how taxpayer dollars are used for private entities, said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association. Unlike public schools, private schools don't have to tell the state how students are performing or how they're using funds.

LAWSUITS, INVESTIGATIONS

A lawsuit on behalf of students and over 100 school districts with the Vouchers Hurt Ohio coalition calls the governor's existing voucher program unconstitutional.

It argues that by providing funds to private school systems, the program violates the Ohio Constitution's call for a common school system that benefits all students, as private schools can turn away students based on intelligence, athletic ability or religious faith.

Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost previously tried to have the case dismissed on grounds that it couldn't cite any specific harm to public schools as a result of providing funds to the EdChoice program. A judge denied the dismissal request and the case remains pending.

The Ohio Senate recently asked the GOP state Auditor Keith Faber to investigate how much money those schools are using to fund the lawsuit. Faber agreed and sent out a survey asking public schools to disclose such funds.

But that move sparked immediate outcry, with voucher opponents calling the survey an act of witness intimidation by lawmakers. Republican Senate President Matt Huffman called it finding out “what the hell is going on.”