(The Center Square) – Ohio lawmakers held the first hearing Tuesday on a bill that would open the state’s school voucher system to all students, offering universal school choice throughout the state.
Currently, school vouchers are available only if a student meets certain criteria regarding disability, family income or school performance. Around 90% of state students attend public schools.
House Bill 290, called the Backpack Bill, would expand private-school options with public vouchers for all students, funding the student rather than a particular school, bill sponsor Rep. Riordan McClain, R-Upper Sandusky, said.
“Those dollars would follow the child to the learning environment that is the best fit for them,” McClain testified before the House Finance Committee. “This bill seeks to empower families to choose the educational option that best meets their needs. The goal of this bill is to put kids first in our funding model for education. To acknowledge that education is not a one-size fits all approach and that empowering parents to make the best decision for their children will result in better educational outcomes. I think many of us would agree, the status quo is not acceptable.”
Ohio’s current EdChoice program allows students from low-performing public schools to attend private, charter or parochial schools using public tax money. Lawmakers expanded the program this year from $6,000 per high school student to $7,500. The cap on the number of eligible students was eliminated, and a separate fund for vouchers was created, so public schools no longer would have to pass along the money per student.
The expansion passed as part of a new school funding formula included in the state’s two-year budget that was signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine in July.
Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, said the Backpack Bill undermines bipartisan priorities that created the new funding plan.
“House Bill 290 does not have the quality standards or the fiscal accountability needed to ensure the thorough and efficient system of common schools that the Ohio Constitution demands,” said Sweeney, ranking member on the House Finance Committee. “It’s difficult to stomach essentially giving away at least a billion in public dollars when, for decades, this state has chronically underfunded public schools and overburdened property taxpayers to do it. We are just starting to implement the Fair School Funding Plan, where Ohio for the first time ever will have a constitutional funding framework for its public schools, and this sweeping change undercuts that effort.”
Vouchers Hurt Ohio filed a lawsuit in early January in Franklin County Common Pleas court on behalf of five school districts and students Malcom McPherson and Fergus Connelly, through their parents, along with the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding to stop the program.
The group said the program is siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools.
The lawsuit named the state of Ohio, the Ohio Department of Education, the State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Stephanie Siddens as defendants.
Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.