Late Monday, members of the House and Senate made their final tweaks to the state budget and then sent it off to Governor DeWine. The final product contains a laundry list of education-related changes, chief among them a brand-new school funding system. It’s likely that this year’s budget cycle will be remembered for debates about the funding formula. But it should also be remembered for policymakers’ attempts—some successful and some not—to expand educational access to more Ohio students.
First, some context. When it comes to education, there are primarily two kinds of access. The first is access to opportunities. This includes academic opportunities, like the option to enroll in a high-performing school, take advanced courses, or receive tutoring or gifted services. But it also includes non-academic opportunities such as sports, music, or art. These types of experiences can be crucial to students’ social-emotional development and mental health—which, in turn, can improve their academic performance. Unfortunately, access to both academic and non-academic opportunities is often tied to family income.
The second form of access is to information. It’s one thing if opportunities don’t exist. It’s another when they do but students and families aren’t aware of them. Here, too, low-income students are more likely to miss out. Inadequate outreach on the part of schools and community organizations, limited or unreliable internet access, and a myriad of other issues can prevent students and families from being aware of what’s out there. The upshot is that gaps in educational access are often a one-two punch: The kids who could benefit most from a diverse set of academic and non-academic activities not only lack access to opportunities, they’re often unaware of the ones that do exist.
Which brings us back to the budget. State policy can help expand opportunity and informational access to underserved students and their families. And this year, in the wake of a pandemic that exacerbated existing access gaps, state policymakers sought solutions. The final budget bill expands school choice in huge ways. It removes geographic restrictions on startup charter schools, increases voucher funding amounts, and modestly opens up voucher eligibility. These moves have the potential to further expand the opportunities available to Ohio students. But school choice isn’t the only way to expand educational access for kids, and policymakers certainly got creative this year.
Consider Governor DeWine’s initial executive budget, which called for the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to become a graduation requirement. FAFSA is the only way to access federal financial aid and grant programs, but thousands of students each year choose not to fill out the application and miss out on funding that could make college more accessible as a result. FAFSA completion is also strongly associated with postsecondary enrollment. Increasing the number of students who complete the application would expand access to information (by making students more aware of financial assistance options) and to opportunities (since completion is associated with postsecondary enrollment). Members of the House and Senate ultimately decided not to include this provision in the final bill, but the governor’s proposal still represents a good-faith effort to expand access to higher education.
Computer science proposals offer another example. In an increasingly digital world, students benefit from being exposed to computer science content and its associated career pathways. That’s why both the governor and the House backed the creation of a state plan for computer science education and a requirement for traditional public schools to provide students with the option of enrolling in a computer science class. These attempts at expanding access ended up faring slightly better than the FAFSA requirement—the conference committee opted to keep the state plan language but eliminated the mandate to offer a computer science class to every student.
The best example of this year’s innovative attempts to expand access, though, is the Afterschool Child Enrichment (ACE) educational savings account. This program—which made it through conference committee untouched—will provide families whose income is at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line with $500 per year that can be spent on a variety of enrichment activities, including tutoring, arts camps, field trips, and instrument or foreign-language lessons. Any student who attends a public, nonpublic, or home school is eligible, which means thousands of students will soon have access to enrichment opportunities that they didn’t have before.
This year’s budget will likely be remembered for its school funding changes. But it was also much more than that. In every phase of the budget-making process, educational access took center stage. Many of these proposals didn’t make the final cut. But the fact that they were proposed at all—and that lawmakers are now more likely to consider them going forward—is a step in the right direction.