COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – As a class action lawsuit against Ohio’s private school voucher program moves through discovery and trial, state lawmakers are considering how to expand it.

Several pieces of legislation, including the state’s biennium budget, would increase eligibility for students to receive state-funded scholarships, most commonly from the EdChoice Scholarship Program, to cover portions of private school tuition. Most EdChoice scholarships are income-based, but various proposals would expand eligibility, ranging from increasing allowable uses of scholarship money to providing a voucher to every K-12 student in the state.

When announcing his operating budget proposal for fiscal years 2024 and 2025, Gov. Mike DeWine announced his vision to expand EdChoice voucher eligibility from those living up to 250% above the federal poverty line – already an expansion of the previous program – to those living 400% above the poverty line. For a family of four, 400% of the 2023 federal poverty line stands at $120,000 a year.

Supporters of increasing private school voucher programs argue it enables parents to find the best education method for their child and saves the state money that would otherwise go to public schools. Opponents argue that the diversion of funds away from the public school system is precisely the problem.

But DeWine’s proposal isn’t the only one before the legislature, and some school choice scholarship proponents argue that his expansion doesn’t go far enough.

The Parent Educational Freedom Act

Senate Bill 11 expands EdChoice eligibility to all K-12 students. Like the existing program, maximum voucher amounts are $5,500 for kindergarten through eighth grade and $7,500 for high school students. The bill also increases the homeschool tax credit from $200 to $2,500 for expenses including books and computer software.

Sen. Sandra O’Brien (R-Ashtabula), the bill’s sponsor, testified at a February hearing of the bill that SB11 “puts educational options within the reach of every parent in Ohio.”

“We need to listen to our parents who want a voice in their children’s education,” O’Brien said. “We need to allow them to spend their hard-earned tax dollars on the school of their choice.”

The bill’s proponents include the Center for Christian Virtue’s Ohio Christian Education Network, Catholic schools across the state and conservative think tanks like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In written and spoken testimony, supporters argued that universal school choice helps students needing individualized care and can save the state millions in funds as public school students join the program.

If all 90,500 Ohio private school students currently ineligible for EdChoice took a scholarship under the SB11, the Legislative Service Commission (LSC) estimates state expenditures would increase $528 million each year. That includes the more than $8.5 million the LSC expects the state to save in decreases to the state foundation aid. The state foundation aid is based primarily on a per-student base cost and can far exceed the highest EdChoice scholarship amounts, meaning it costs the state less to provide choice vouchers to public school students

Tanisha Pruitt with progressive think tank Policy Matters Ohio wrote in submitted testimony that diverting funds from public education erodes the foundation of democracy – and goes against the Ohio constitution’s mandate of a “thorough and efficient system of common schools.”

“The problem with this legislation is not in giving parents a choice to have their children educated where they see fit but is rather an issue of priorities,” Pruitt wrote.

Ohio’s EdChoice program is under judicial scrutiny after hundreds of school districts filed a class action lawsuit against the state, arguing that the continued expansion of EdChoice and private school voucher programs has created a “separate, non-public system of education” that has stripped local schools of funding and increased educational inequality in the state. Discovery is ongoing, and the case is slated for trial in 2024.

The Backpack Scholarship Program

With full support from the Ohio House Speaker and nearly 30 cosponsors, legislation called the “Backpack Bill” is pushing through the Statehouse, even as opponents caution against its estimated economic feasibility – or lack thereof.

House Bill 11, introduced by Reps. Riordan McClain (R-Upper Sandusky) and Marilyn John (R-Richland County), also increases school choice program eligibility to all K-12 students, but the money could be used beyond private school tuition. Instead of a voucher, students receive money in an Educational Savings Account they could use to supplement their education at the participating private, charter or home school of their choice.

Starting in 2024, the Backpack Scholarship Program would replace EdChoice entirely. It adopts the same maximum allotments, but the bill requires those amounts to increase alongside boosts to the average base cost used for divvying up public school funds. Disabled students who receive the Autism Scholarship or Jon B. Peterson Scholarship could have an educational savings account in addition to their current scholarship.

The Legislative Services Commission estimates that if all 185,400 newly eligible nonpublic school students participated in the program, it would cost the state $1.13 billion each year. For every 1% of those students who do not take an account, that cost would decrease by $11.3 million. The commission pointed to future, unspecified state savings from students who transfer out of public schools under the program.

Like for other school choice expansion proposals, opponents decry the siphoning off of funds that would otherwise go to public schools. During a hearing on the operating budget Thursday, Rep. Jessica Miranda (D-Cincinnati) called the Backpack Scholarship Program “financially unsustainable” and “not fiscally responsible.”

Troy McIntosh, executive director of the Ohio Christian Education Network, criticized the bill’s opponents for relying on the LSC’s extreme-case scenario budget estimate. He argued Thursday, as he has multiple times before legislators, that protecting parents’ right to decide what’s best for their children should be Ohio’s top priority.

“The state should not have the overwhelming power to both compel education and dictate the content of that education,” McIntosh said. “That is too much power in the hands of the state.”

Throughout testimony from parents, private school attendees and their administrators, Rep. Dani Isaacsohn (D-Cincinnati) remained skeptical that increasing funds for nonpublic school vouchers would achieve the state’s goal of improving the literacy, test scores, workforce readiness, and mental and emotional wellness of its children.

“My concern is that the advocacy here is more about educational freedom and less about helping kids read the words ‘educational freedom,'” Isaacsohn said.