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Problems fill skinny bill on school vouchers

Excuse us for being underwhelmed at legislation introduced into the Ohio House of Representatives this month to eliminate all restrictions on school vouchers for elementary and secondary school students. In fact, the bare-bones bill raises more questions than it answers and, in its current form, fails miserably to safeguard transparency and accountability for state taxpayers.

Unlike many long-winded first drafts of legislation that run dozens, if not hundreds, of pages long, House Bill 290 introduced by Republican Reps. Riordan D. McClain and Marilyn S. John occupies a mere 19 lines. As one might expect without even reading it, their bill to overhaul a hot-button piece education policy in Ohio seriously lacks breadth and depth.

The so-called “universal voucher” bill would allow all families to leave their public school district to enter a private, community or STEM school in Ohio. Any and all per-pupil funding that student would have provided his / her home school district would instead be carried away into the student’s new nonpublic school of choice. Therein lies the premise for this EdChoice bill’s nickname of “the backpack bill.”

Currently, the Ohio Department of Education largely limits its EdChoice vouchers to students in failing districts or those from low-income and disadvantaged families. Even so, the cost to public schools has been no small change.

In 2020, the EdChoice Scholarship Program spent a whopping $395.4 million to educate about 61,000 students. State taxpayers also footed the bill to the tune of $914 million toward the operation of 321 nonpublic community or charter schools.

With so much at stake, sponsors of HB 290 have left it up to others to fill in the blanks in their vacuous bill.

We would start by making sure the legislation includes secure checks and balances on how funding lost to our public schools is being spent in the students’ new schools. We’d also insist the EdChoice schools be required to live up to the same standards and rules of transparency as public schools, particularly on how the money is spent. Like public school systems, their finances should be readily visible on the checkbook.ohio.gov website.

After all, we’ve witnessed too many examples of greedy and shady community school operators to accept anything but the strictest of state oversight of these quasi-public educational institutions. What’s more, in many cases, academic achievement at such schools leaves much to be desired.

McClain urges everyone to chill out and look toward West Virginia. But West Virginia rises as no stellar example of superlative educational quality. In fact, a recent ranking by U.S. News and World Report places it 45th lowest in the nation in the competent operation of its public schools. Aside from the Mountain State and the Buckeye State, no other state in the union has proposed such a wholesale giveaway of public school dollars, so there’s nowhere else to look but from within.

Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMaruo minces no words in calling the McClain bill “disastrous for Ohio’s children,” pointing to a 2020 investigation by the Cincinnati Enquirer that found students using vouchers were not performing nearly as well as many of their public school counterparts.

Bill Phillis, executive director for the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding, fumes even more vehemently against HB 290: “That bill is totally antithetical to the Legislature’s responsibility for public education. It’s an affront to the constitution of the state of Ohio.”

On top of these other troubling aspects of HB 290 lies its extremely poor timing. Its introduction comes the same month in which state legislators and education department leaders dramatically revised Ohio’s school funding statutes to respond finally to the 1997 state Supreme Court ruling that Ohio’s reliance on local property taxes to fund schools is unconstitutional. Those revisions are included in the state’s new biennial budget bill. That bill calls for the state treasury, not local school districts, to foot the bill for a limited EdChoice voucher program. It has passed the House and awaits Senate action by a June 30 deadline.

McClain’s bill, if passed, would complicate anew Ohio’s school finance mess by ripping apart a 24-years-in-the-making fix to Ohio’s constitutional crisis in public education.

That would prove tragic not only for Ohio constitutional law but, more importantly, for students who deserve better than preservation of failed experiments and grossly inequitable learning environments.

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