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Bill Would Make All Ohio Students Eligible For Private School Vouchers

 Students hold their backpacks supporting school choice legislation.
Dan Konik
Ohio Public Radio
Students hold their backpacks supporting school choice legislation.

About 35,000 Ohio K-12 students currently receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools under the EdChoice program. But there’s a new billthat would make it possible for all of the state’s students to get vouchers if they want them.

Columbus resident Ben Douglass said his second-grade daughter was suffering from debilitating anxiety that kept her from even getting out of bed. So, he removed her from the public school she was attending and enrolled her in a private one with a voucher from the EdChoice program.

“Her test scores are incredible. Her happiness is great. Emotionally, academically, even spiritually, she’s just flourishing and feels so comfortable where she’s at,” Douglass said.

Because his daughter’s public-school building was considered failing and because his family made less than 250% of the federal poverty level, Douglass qualified for the EdChoice program.

But many Ohioans don’t qualify for the program because they make too much money or live in a school district that is too high performing. Rep. Riordan McClain (R-Upper Sandusky) said his bill to create a universal voucher program that changes that.

“We want to fund students, not systems, and empower parents to make the best decisions for their children,” McClain said.

Rep. Marilyn John (R-Shelby) said, the way it stands now, some students get left behind in public schools and that’s unacceptable.

“One size fits all doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for most things and it certainly doesn’t work for education. And the backpack bill solves that problem,” John said

Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, which calls itself Ohio's largest Christian public policy organization, said this bill will allow parents to choose schools that align with their values. For example, he said parents in the Upper Arlington School District who were upset when the schools implemented gender-neutral bathrooms had no recourse but to accept that decision.

“All of their high schools and I believe their middle schools as well decided they were going to have single-sex bathrooms so boys were going to be allowed to use the stall right next to a girl through those developmental times of life. And all of those children in Upper Arlington were forced to use those restrooms, whether the parent liked it or not. And they had no option to go elsewhere because most of those families were not eligible for EdChoice. A bill like this would be able to say, ‘look, Upper Arlington, if this is what you want to do, if this is the policy you want to have, ok, but now we are going to take, those families are allowed to go elsewhere,'” Baer says.

Backers of the bill said vouchers up to $7,500 would follow each child to the private school they choose. But even though 164,000 kids in Ohio attend private schools, along with 60,000 that use some sort of state-paid voucher, supporters of the bill claim that won’t take a lot of money away from public schools.

“This idea that it’s not going to cost any more is just a sham,” said long-time public school advocate Bill Phillis.

Phillis' lawsuit over the property tax-based way of paying for schools got the system declared unconstitutional in 1997. The state has been trying to come up with a way to fund schools fairly ever since.

The value of EdChoice vouchers was increased in the most recent state budget. An analysis of that increase by the Ohio Education Policy Institute, which does research for the major public education groups, shows those increases could cost the state nearly $283 million over the next two years. This bill would add to that.

Phillis said the goal of this bill is to dismantle common public education.

“It’s a global attempt to take stuff away from the public and put it into the private and when that happens, poor people end up with the short end of the stick,” he said.

Phillis said any way you cut it, this would take money away from public schools.

“If Upper Arlington is getting $2,000 from the state and it takes $7,500 for a high school student to go to a scholarship, that’s taking money out of the pool of money that’s not going to be available across the state to the other districts," he said.

The money will be ripe for misuse and abuse as opportunists quickly set up fly-by-night schools to turn a profit, Phillis said.

“Give parents the opportunity to home school and give them a voucher for homeschooling and there will be a proliferation of that sort of thing going on and instead of using the money for education, some of the parents, now we have great confidence in most parents but some of the parents would be buying off-track four-wheelers as opposed to providing the money for education. We know there are parents out there who resist this whole compulsory education idea,” he said.

Supporters of this bill said the state will have oversight of those dollars. But that’s no consolation to Phillis.

“We know that the state doesn’t really monitor. ECOT is a good example. The state doesn’t really monitor these types of private operations. ECOT got caught with a $60 million fraud one year. Well, they were operating the same way for the previous 15 years and the state had no clue about it. Or they chose to have no clue about it,” Phillis said.

But this bill would not cover students who want to go to a different public school. So, it wouldn’t require school districts that don’t allow open enrollment to do so.

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.