Statewide expansion of school choice vouchers would hurt funding for public education: Benjamin Helton

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The recent Carson v. Makin decision by the US Supreme Court makes private religious schools eligible to receive public money, to the delight of school choice advocates.

School choice is currently a limited part of education policy in Ohio. The EdChoice program allows students who would attend a “failing” public school to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher, called a “scholarship,” to attend private schools.

The vouchers are currently worth $ 5,500 for K-8 students and $ 7,500 for high school students.

While the current program is relatively small, HB 290, a bill currently in the House Finance Committee, looks to expand the EdChoice program to all Ohio students. This bill, if enacted, would be devastating for Ohio public school students, especially rural students.

A common question posed by school choice advocates is “Why would families give a choice undermine funding for public schools?”

Proponents say bills that would expand voucher programs statewide would give all families “choice” and that funding for vouchers comes from a different budget than public school dollars.

Both assertions are blatantly false, according to how these voucher bills operate theoretically and empirically.

Dr. Benjamin Helton is a former public schoolteacher and currently assistant professor of music education at Case Western Reserve University. He teaches pre- and in-service music teachers and conducts research on arts education policy.

First, rural schools will reap no benefit from any school choice bill and only stand to lose funding. Few formal educational options exist in rural communities aside from the local public schools. What good is a voucher if the closest private school is more than an hour’s drive away?

It is also unlikely that charter schools, the other possible place to use a voucher, will suddenly appear in rural areas. There is no market.

Similar to the way rural areas of Ohio rely on the United States Postal Service, so too do they rely on their local public schools.

Online charter school options are irresponsible uses of taxpayer money due to the history of corruption among online charter schools operating in Ohio.

Second, voucher programs will add costs to an already tight budget. Parents who already send their children to private schools or were planning to send their child to a private kindergarten, can easily get vouchers for their children. There are approximately 211,000 private school students in Ohio. If 25% of those students receive $ 5,500 vouchers, it would cost about $ 290 million.

A recent fiscal analysis performed by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission on HB 538 found that the current EdChoice voucher program results in a loss of $ 738 to school districts for each student who receives a voucher.

If 10% of the 1.8 million public school students in Ohio use this program through HB 290, the state education budgets would lose nearly $ 133 million. These two budgetary concerns add up to a loss of more than $ 400 million that would have to come from somewhere – and that “somewhere” is the state education budget.

HB 290′s lack of upside for rural Ohioans also raises questions as to why its primary sponsors, Riordan McClain, a Republican from Upper Sandusky, and Marilyn S. John, a Republican from Shelby, put their names on it.

Both represent mostly rural districts. Mansfield, a city in John’s district with a population of 46,000, is the largest municipality, by far, in either district. Why would they sponsor a bill that would do nothing to help their rural constituents and would likely sap funding from the schools most of the children in their districts will always attend?

Any potential upside to vouchers is relegated to urban areas with a lot of choices – areas quite different from both McClain’s and John’s districts.

Public education continues to be one of the best investments for Ohioans’ tax dollars. For the sake of all Ohio students, and especially for the sake of rural Ohioans, HB 290 must be opposed and voted down.

The Ohio legislature needs to continue funding Ohio’s public schools and avoid trading Ohio’s students’ futures for the snake oil being sold by the school choice lobby.

Dr. Benjamin Helton is a former public schoolteacher and currently assistant professor of music education at Case Western Reserve University. He teaches pre- and in-service music teachers and conducts research on arts education policy.

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