Bill aims to redirect state school funding to parents

Credit: Jim Gaines

Caption
Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, describes HB 290, the "Backpack Bill," at the Ohio Capitol on Oct. 6, 2021.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Two Republican legislators and a conservative Christian group announced legislation Wednesday to let any Ohio parent of a school-aged child move more than $6,000 a year in state public-school funding for their choice of education: private school, charter school or homeschooling.

Dubbed the “Backpack Bill,” House Bill 290 would greatly expand existing voucher programs. It would create a “true ‘money follows child’ approach” in Ohio, said Rep. Riordan McClain, R-Upper Sandusky.

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Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, said public schools would still be “the first choice,” but also said the bill could be used to pressure public school boards to change policies and curriculum.

That included issues of race and gender – “ideologies and worldviews that are objectionable to the parents,” Baer said.

The CCV describes itself as seeking “the good of our neighbors by advocating for public policy that reflects the truth of the Gospel.”

McClain and Marilyn John, R-Shelby, in conjunction with the CCV, announced HB 290 at a press conference in the Ohio Statehouse. It replaces a placeholder bill, filed in May and referred to the House Finance Committee, which stated the intent “to establish a school funding formula that allows families to choose the option for all computed funding amounts associated with students’ education to follow them to the public and nonpublic schools they attend.”

The bill has 16 cosponsors including Reps. Bill Dean, R-Xenia, Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, Jena Powell, R-Arcanum, and Paul Zeltwanger, R-Mason.

Matt Sableski, principal of Carroll High School, a private Catholic school in Dayton which has several hundred students on current voucher programs, said he’s not familiar with the bill’s contents but does believe strongly in school choice.

“Any means that we can (use to) create opportunities for individuals to make the best educational choice for their child is a good thing,” he said. “However we strongly support the need for quality public education as well. All schools need to be strong for society to thrive.”

The proposal might not increase Carroll’s enrollment by very much, but would make it more affordable for some current families and potential new ones, Sableski said.

Bill Phillis is executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, an alliance of local governments challenging the constitutionality of the state school funding system. He sees HB 290 as the culmination of a 30-year effort to defund any public system and privatize it.

“These folks don’t understand what the (Ohio) constitution says about education,” Phillis said. “The constitution, Article 6, Section 2, says that the General Assembly shall secure, by taxation or otherwise, a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.

“These fellows are saying the money should go to the parents of the kids, not to a system of common schools. The system is what’s to be funded. Now, that’s been in the constitution since 1851.”

Nothing in the state constitution provides for funding vouchers, charter schools or individual students, he said.

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For the roughly 2 million school-age children in Ohio, the state would create an Educational Scholarship Account, or ESA, which parents could spend on private school tuition, homeschooling, tutoring, books or other supplies, McClain said.

Oversight of that spending would be in the hands of the state treasurer’s office, he said. The mechanism for that oversight hasn’t yet been defined, McClain said.

It would supersede the state’s existing EdChoice, EdChoice Expansion and Cleveland scholarships, but the Autism and Jon Peterson Special Needs scholarships would remain in place, McClain said.

Dayton school board member Jocelyn Rhynard has testified against voucher programs before, and opposes HB 290 as well. “Dismantling public education” in Ohio has resulted in a decline in state school rankings, and this would only hasten that process, she said.

“The voucher program takes public tax dollars and gives it to private entities that are not accountable to the state,” Rhynard said. “Nonpublic schools can and do discriminate on basis of sex, gender, and disability. Nonpublic schools aren’t legally required to disclose their finances or graduation rates. Nonpublic schools can and do expel students if their test scores are low.”

The amount paid into an ESA would be $5,500 per year for kindergarten through 8th grade students, and $7,500 for grades 9 through 12, said Troy McIntosh, executive director of the Ohio Christian Education Network, an arm of the CCV. That’s the current value of an EdChoice scholarship, and would be consistent for all students, he said. The amount wouldn’t vary based on individual school district funding.

Only the state-provided portion of education funding, not local levies or federal contributions, would transfer with students, John said. Local and federal funding would remain with public schools, she said.

There are concerns that vouchers actually increase property taxes – used to fund education – in the long term, Rhynard said.

“The fiscal conservatives in the state should be alarmed at the cost of the program both in the short term and long term, as well as the sustainability of the program,” she said.

About half of the state’s 120,000 private school students and all of the 80,000 homeschool students would be eligible for the extra money, Phillis said.

“When somebody says this isn’t going to cost any more, there won’t be any additional cost, that’s either being naïve or disingenuous. It will cost a boatload more money,” Phillis said. That would ultimately come from, and decrease, public school funding, he said.

He also doubted the treasurer’s office would be able to mount any effective oversight of spending by tens of thousands of parents.

Parents would apply to the state treasurer’s office for access to the program, John said. Vendors – schools – would have an application process as well.

John framed the bill as providing options and choice for parents while stimulating competition for public schools.

“We believe wholeheartedly it will help improve education,” she said.

Six other states have approved similar programs, according to the CCV: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, touts HB 290 on Oct. 6, 2021. Behind him are bill sponsors Rep. Marilyn John (left) and Rep. Riordan McClain.
Caption
Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, touts HB 290 on Oct. 6, 2021. Behind him are bill sponsors Rep. Marilyn John (left) and Rep. Riordan McClain.

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

Baer touts HB 290, which would let all Ohio parents use state funding for private or home schooling.
Caption
Baer touts HB 290, which would let all Ohio parents use state funding for private or home schooling.