Last week, Governor Mike DeWine unveiled his state budget proposal for fiscal years 2024 and 2025. The blueprint calls for an $856 million increase in state expenditures on K–12 education by 2025 (up 8 percent compared to the $10.3 billion currently spent). It also includes a number of significant education initiatives, including three important proposals in the realm of school choice.
1. Boosting the state’s quality charter school fund
During his tenure in office, Governor DeWine has been a strong champion for high-quality public charter schools. In fact, one of his signature first-term initiatives was a new supplemental funding program for quality charters via his first budget in 2019. This innovative program provides qualifying schools with up to $1,750 in additional funding per economically disadvantaged pupil, and $1,000 for non-disadvantaged pupils. These dollars help narrow longstanding charter funding gaps, provide some of the extra resources needed for quality schools to expand, and create an incentive for lower-performing charters to improve. At present, approximately one-third of Ohio charters—117 schools serving some 39,000 students—receive these funds by meeting criteria that include earning a four- or five-star value-added rating and registering higher performance index scores than their local district for two consecutive years. In total, qualifying schools are on track to receive $54 million in FY 2023, though the per-pupil amounts are being reduced by about 20 percent to fit the fixed appropriation approved during the last budget cycle.
In his latest proposal, the governor aims to boost the high-quality fund by more than doubling the appropriation to $125 million per year. This would provide schools with $3,000 per economically disadvantaged student each year, moving quality charters’ funding levels closer to parity with districts. (Charters currently receive on average roughly 70 to 75 cents on the dollar in total funding compared to their local district.) The higher funding amounts should also re-energize new school formation throughout Ohio, as quality charters gain serious capacity to expand their existing schools or launch new ones. They should make Ohio an even more attractive locale for top-notch national charter networks—something that has already occurred in the past couple years after the initial creation of the fund. All told, the governor’s proposal is great news for Ohio families and students, who will reap the benefits of having more, and better funded, quality public school options within their reach.
2. Increasing Ohio’s charter facilities allowance
Traditional districts have long had access to taxpayer funds that allow them to meet their facility needs. At a local level, districts can ask voters to pass bond and permanent improvement levies that cover facilities costs; they can also tap into the state’s main school construction grant program known as CFAP. Charters, however, don’t have local taxing authority and they aren’t eligible for CFAP. As a result, charters often make do with spartan facilities that are less conducive for the learning and enrichment opportunities that students elsewhere take for granted, and/or they have to take money from instructional activities in order to pay the mortgage or rent. In fact, an ExcelinEd analysis published last year found that Ohio only meets 18 percent of charters’ actual facility needs.
Ohio has recently taken some small steps forward in funding charter facilities, including a state budget item that provides a modest per-pupil allowance to cover building expenses. Currently, this appropriation provides $500 per pupil, a welcome amount but still far below districts’ annual spending on building operations, maintenance, and capital outlay. In his budget proposal, Governor DeWine doubles the per-pupil facility allowance to $1,000, an increase that will better ensure charter students are learning in suitable facilities.
3. Expanding EdChoice scholarship eligibility
Last but not least, Governor DeWine has proposed a significant expansion to the state’s private-school scholarship program known as EdChoice. This program offers state-funded scholarships (a.k.a., vouchers) that allow students to enroll in private schools when they either attend a low-performing school or are from low-income households. To be eligible for the income-based scholarship, families must have household incomes at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level (presently $69,375 for a family of four). While current policy makes sure to cover Ohio’s neediest students, the income threshold still leaves out many working families. For instance, a family where dad works as a police officer and mom works as a nurse is likely to be ineligible for the assistance.
Under the governor’s new proposal, the eligibility threshold for income-based EdChoice would rise to 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($110,000 for a family of four). This would be great news for thousands of Ohio parents who prefer private school options in their local community, but still can’t afford it within their family budget. Ohio, of course, could go a step further and follow the lead of several other states—and a recent bill introduced in the Senate—and simply make scholarships universal by eliminating income limits altogether. But the substantial expansion of EdChoice proposed by the governor should be celebrated as yet another big move toward empowering all Ohio families with educational options.
* * *
As the governor’s budget heads to the General Assembly for debate, lawmakers should embrace these provisions. Hopefully, they’ll even consider building on them in various ways, such as ensuring that quality charters are funded at full parity with their local district (that’d take at least another $1,000 per pupil) or pursuing other facility supports, such as a credit enhancement program. But for now, three hearty cheers for Governor DeWine and his bold support for charter schools and private school choice.
 The governor’s “budget book” doesn’t specify whether the per-pupil amounts would continue to be reduced if they exceed the appropriation. More details will be in the actual legislation.