Across the nation, state lawmakers have been heeding the call for parents to have more control over their children’s education. Recognizing that there is no “one-size-fits-all” model that meets every kid’s need, legislators have been actively strengthening school-choice policies and expanding options for families. Florida, for instance, recently expanded its nation-leading private school scholarship programs. Iowa just significantly improved its charter school law. West Virginia and Kentucky created brand-new educational savings account (ESA) programs that offer parents flexibility in how they meet (and pay for) their kids’ educational needs.
So far this year, Ohio’s education debates have paid scant attention to choice. Lawmakers have focused on technical issues with the school funding formula and overall spending levels. But that changed last week with the unveiling of the Senate’s education plan for the state budget for the fiscal years 2022–23 (HB 110). If enacted, its proposals would be a huge step forward in putting families’ needs and wants at the center of education policy. Here are highlights of the Senate approach:
- Removes caps on the number of EdChoice scholarships available. EdChoice, the largest of Ohio’s scholarship programs, allows children from low- and middle-income households to attend private schools of their choice. The program has grown significantly over the past decade, but legislators have limited the number of available scholarships, which in the past has left some children in the lurch. The Senate plan would ensure that any eligible student applying for an EdChoice scholarship receives one.
- Increases the EdChoice and Cleveland scholarship amounts. The EdChoice and Cleveland scholarship amounts have fallen well behind public school spending. Today, they’re worth just $4,650 in grades K–8 and $6,000 in grades 9–12, even as Ohio’s public schools spend on average $14,000 per pupil. The Senate plan narrows that gap somewhat by lifting these scholarship amounts to $5,500 and $7,500 in grades K–8 and 9–12, respectively. Importantly, it also ensures that in future budgets, scholarship amounts will automatically rise in proportion to any increase in public schools’ base funding. This provision would create more predictability and fairness for families that rely on these programs.
- Provides full funding for Ohio’s quality charter school program. Back in 2019, Governor DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Husted shepherded through a new initiative that drives extra dollars to high-performing public charter schools. For such schools, the program narrows longstanding charter funding gaps and helps to build the schools’ capacity to serve more students. To his credit, Governor DeWine remained committed to this fund in his second budget, ramping up the appropriation to $54 million per year, which should more adequately cover the $1,750 per economically disadvantaged pupil that qualifying schools are supposed to receive. In an unfortunate move, the House cut funding for this valuable program, but Senate lawmakers restored it to the governor’s level.
- Boosts facility support for charter and independent STEM schools. A recent study by the national education group ExcelinEd found that Ohio funds just 18 percent of charter facility costs, thereby forcing schools to dip into operating dollars to cover rent or mortgage payments. To assist charters with their facility expenses, the Senate plan increases the state’s allowance from $250 to $750 per pupil. Ohio’s seven independent public STEM schools, which are funded much like charters, would also receive these dollars. Moreover, the Senate plan strengthens the right of first refusal law by requiring districts to offer to charters an “unused facility” for lease or purchase when less than 60 percent of the facility is used for direct academic instruction (under current rules, districts could make token use of a facility to prevent it from going to a charter school). Last, the Senate lays out a framework for a credit-enhancement program that could significantly reduce charters’ borrowing costs for school construction or renovation; however, before the program launches, it wisely calls for a study to ensure that all the details are covered.
- Removes geographic restrictions on startup charter schools. Ever since Ohio passed its original charter law in 1997, the state has largely restricted charter schools to urban communities—where many brick-and-mortar charters have excelled at educating students. But charters in other states with less restrictive policies have also greatly benefitted middle- and upper-income families. In a long overdue change, the Senate would scrap these arbitrary geographic restrictions, creating the potential for new charter school formation throughout Ohio.
- Opens the door to faith-based public charter schools. The Senate eliminates a requirement that charter schools be “nonsectarian,” thus allowing for religious charter schools (in terms of both their programs and who runs them). This idea recently gained steam when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down decisions that protect religious freedoms under the First Amendment. If the Senate approach becomes law, this could be a huge step forward for choice—and accountability. In the short term, the provision may be used to convert existing religious schools to charter status (which unlocks additional state dollars). Over the longer haul, it also has the potential to draw more faith-based organizations into the education marketplace and thus open new options to Ohio parents. Moreover, the proposal would heighten accountability. Charter schools, unlike private schools, receive state report cards, are overseen by state-approved authorizers that have the authority to close schools, and are subject to federal and state interventions due to underperformance.
- Offers modest tax relief for families choosing other kinds of schools or homeschooling. Although most of the attention in the school-choice movement focuses on public charter schools and private school scholarships, thousands of Ohio families choose to homeschool their children or enroll them in nonchartered, non-tax-supported schools (private schools that decline all taxpayer support, including scholarships). Recognizing the financial burden of these options, the Senate plan provides a tax credit to parents choosing them. Homeschooling families would receive a small $250 nonrefundable tax credit, akin to the teacher tax deduction for educational expenses. Low-income families enrolling their kids in nonchartered, non-tax-supported schools would become eligible for a $2,500 nonrefundable tax credit to offset the cost of tuition.
- Creates an ESA program to support afterschool learning. It has been well documented that low-income students tend to have fewer enrichment opportunities. Unfortunately, at the state level, there have been few focused efforts to support out-of-school learning. In an innovative model, the Senate plan creates an ESA program that provides $500 per year to low-income parents that would help them pay for afterschool programs, day camps, or tutoring. Students in public school, private school, or homeschool would be eligible to participate in the ESA, and their parents must apply for the funds. The Senate funds the program through federal Covid-relief monies ($125 million over the biennium), so the ESA would be temporary at least for now. However, if it proves successful, lawmakers should certainly consider making this a permanent program in future years.
The Senate plan sets forth a bold new vision for K–12 education that puts more power and control into the hands of Ohio families. It supports parents’ inherent right to educate their children in the manner they see fit, and it promotes educational quality. The proposals would also make Ohio one of the nation’s most choice-friendly states, rivalling places like Arizona, Florida, and Indiana. As the governor and lawmakers from both chambers hammer out the final budget legislation, they should enthusiastically follow the Senate’s lead on education choice.