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‘Backpack’ bill gives Ohio students choices

GOP pushes school voucher program for all

COLUMBUS — Ohio parents dissatisfied with their children’s public school education could opt into a program allowing them to use state dollars to send their children to private schools or to take advantage of other educational expenses, under a GOP-backed bill in the House.

The legislation, known as “backpack” funding because money follows children no matter what school they attend, is a kids-first approach to education, bill sponsor Rep. Riordan McClain, a Republican from Upper Sandusky, told the House Finance Committee on Tuesday.

The legislation is not anti-public school, added bill co-sponsor Rep. Marilyn John, a Shelby Republican. “It is a pro-child, pro-parent, pro-family bill, which empowers parents and families to make a choice that is in the best interest of their child,” John testified.

The program would be optional, but parents who choose it would have $5,500 in state funding per K-8 student and $7,500 per 9-12 student placed in an educational savings account managed by the state treasurer’s office.

Debate over the bill comes months after the Legislature approved a new school-funding plan years in the making meant to bring more reliability to annual school funding payments to districts. It also follows a January lawsuit saying the existing voucher program is creating an unconstitutional system of separately funded private education.

Democrats say the backpack bill harms already challenged public schools and question how it would align with the new school-funding plan.

LOCAL OPINIONS

LaBrae Superintendent Anthony J. Calderone suggests people on the right argue tax money for education should follow students to private schools, but they seldom use the same logic when talking about other public goods like the payment of police and fire departments.

“Education tends to be a common target,” Calderone said. “If you want to use taxpayer money to pay for private education, then, at least, have the schools on a level playing field at which the private schools face the same level of financial and academic scrutiny as public schools.

“Private schools, like public schools, must take all students that apply, regardless of backgrounds and possible physical and mental disabilities,” he said. “I have no problem competing against any private school, so long as we begin at the same place and compete with the same materials.”

Newton Falls Treasurer Terry Armstrong, who has held administrative posts in multiple Valley school districts, said the board of education approved a resolution against the “so-called” backpack resolution in December.

“My worry is this proposal will turn back the progress made under fair school funding legislation that passed last year,” Armstrong said. “The Fair School Funding legislation was only funded for two years. An expensive program like this would hurt schools. It’ll hurt the kids who need it the most.”

Armstrong said he wants to see a thorough long-term study on the current voucher program to determine its cost advantages.

“When you start adding more schools, it does not make a whole lot of sense,” he said. “If, under this proposed program, you took every student attending nonpublic schools and allowed their funds to follow them, it will add an estimated $1 billion to the state budget. That money will have to come from somewhere.”

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