Understanding the implications of the Backpack Bill


By David Larson

Guest columnist

House lawmakers recently introduced HB 290, commonly referred to as the Backpack Bill. This legislation intends to provide universal vouchers to families in Ohio to pursue educational options outside of the public system. School choice is a theme that has been paramount to many members of the General Assembly for decades dating back to the development of the Cleveland School Voucher program in 1995. Since the mid 90s, there has been a concerted effort to expand voucher opportunities in Ohio. This seemed to culminate in the recent biennium budget with the expansion of the EdChoice Scholarship program. According to the Ohio Department of Education’s website, this program “provides students from designated public schools the opportunity to attend participating private schools. The program also provides low-income students who are entering kindergarten through 12th grade scholarship opportunities.”

School choice may seem like an innocuous, or even charitable, concept. But before the public accepts the overwhelming expansion of this program to all families through HB 290, it is imperative to understand some basic information about school choice options. It is important to note that this editorial is by no means a criticism of private school education. The purpose is to examine the intended and unintended consequences of using public money for private purposes.

First, although this legislation posits the opportunity for all students to have school choice, that is far from accurate. Private schools, by their very nature, have the right to select who they admit and who they allow to stay in their school. One primary concern is that often private schools are not equipped to address the learning needs of children with disabilities. Although many private institutions do serve some students with learning disabilities, most do not have the appropriate supports in place to address the needs of our most vulnerable population of children. As a result, parents of students with disabilities do not consistently have the school choice options touted by voucher advocates, thus allowing private institutions the flexibility to be discriminative in who they accept even though they are receiving public funds.

In addition, private schools are not required to provide due process to students in the same manner as public schools. Numerous legal precedents exist that support the rights of students to legitimate due process and other freedoms outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps most significantly in Ohio is the case of Goss v. Lopez (1975), in which the Supreme Court determined that the state could not deprive students of educational benefits without due process of law. Student discipline in public schools, including the use of suspension and expulsion, has to follow certain steps to protect the rights of students. Private schools do not have to follow these guidelines and are provided the freedom to deny education to students who may face disciplinary consequences. This is a choice that parents make and, in my opinion, should be able to make. That being said, I question the constitutionality of using public taxpayer money to compensate private institutions that are not required to provide protection under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Another item that I believe the public should be aware of is the potential cost of voucher expansion. Proponents of the Backpack Bill claim that this will save taxpayers money because the amount provided to families (between $5,500-$7,500) is less than the amount that local districts spend to educate students. It is imperative to note that education spending is an average based on varying needs of students. For example, one student may require very little in the way of additional services in order to be successful, while another may require specialized education programming, various therapies, or mental health support. If districts start to lose significant amounts of state funding as a result of HB 290, they will fail to provide the necessary support to educate all children or they will be forced to raise local taxes to maintain the level of education opportunity their communities expect. The cost to operate a school will likely remain unchanged even if a district were to lose a significant percent of students due to voucher expansion.

Lastly, supporters of expanded school choice often claim that competition among schools breeds more success. They will suggest that parents will choose to leave lower performing public schools in favor of what they perceive as higher performing private institutions. It should be noted that comparing private schools with public schools is the equivalent of comparing apples to oranges. As previously stated, private schools are not obligated to educate all students, therefore the demographics and backgrounds of students in private schools vary greatly in comparison to that of their public counterparts. Furthermore, private schools are not subjected to the very assessments and report cards that our politicians claim are necessary to hold public schools accountable. Hence, there is no valid mechanism to compare academic performance between the two because the very instrument that is used to deem a public school as “failing” is not applied to the private schools to which they transfer.

I am not an opponent of private education. I have many friends and family who choose a private educational experience for their children, many making this choice as a result of their religious conviction. I do have significant concerns with spending state taxpayer dollars to fund institutions that are not held to the same standards as the public school system. Our public schools are imperative to the communities in which they exist. I encourage you to talk to your local schools and find out how HB 290 may impact your public school system and if you share these concerns, please address them with your state senators and representatives.

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