COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio lawmakers are considering a bill to provide cash to all families with school-aged children in the state to choose their public school district or a private school.

Under the Parent Educational Freedom Act, or Senate Bill 368, every K-12 student in Ohio would qualify for a state-funded voucher to offset the cost of attending a nonpublic school of their choice. Current law limits vouchers, administered through the EdChoice Scholarship Program, to low-income students and those in low-performing districts.

“Ohio is fortunate to have many fine teachers and many public schools that work for students, but the one-size-fits-all approach to education simply does not work,” Sen. Sandra O’Brien (R-Ashtabula), the sponsor of SB 368, said last week.

O’Brien’s proposal, if passed, would be the largest expansion to EdChoice since 2013, abolishing all income requirements necessary for voucher eligibility. It would also boost the homeschool tax credit from $250 to $2,000.

Despite the growing popularity of EdChoice – whose vouchers cost the state $315 million in 2022 – the program is not immune to controversy. More than 120 public school districts, including Columbus City Schools, have joined a class action lawsuit challenging EdChoice’s constitutionality.

“In many ways, this is part of an attack on public education, on the concept of public education,” Eric Brown, a Columbus school board member and former Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, said. “And that’s unfortunate on many fronts.”

A chunk of change for school choice

EdChoice pays up to $5,500 for K-8 students and $7,500 for grades 9-12 to help cover the price tag of tuition at participating private or chartered nonpublic schools, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Since its inception in 2005, the use of EdChoice has become more common among Ohio families. About 57,000 Ohio students used an EdChoice voucher to attend a nonpublic school in the 2022-23 school year – more than triple the 18,133 participants in 2014, according to ODE.

“Parents are the ultimate authority on all matters concerning their children, and they want options,” O’Brien said.

Columbus City Schools parents increasingly want options, too, data from the ODE suggests. From 2018 to 2022, the number of CCS students using an EdChoice voucher grew by nearly 40%.

As more school-aged students take advantage of EdChoice, the more money Ohio doles out from its education budget. In 2018, EdChoice vouchers cost the state about $147 million, according to the ODE.

Six years later, Ohio paid $315 million in EdChoice scholarships – a figure that’s becoming increasingly concerning to one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the voucher program: the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding (OCEASF).

Franklin County alone spent nearly $43 million on EdChoice vouchers for about 7,300 students in 2022, ODE data indicates.

“Every dollar that goes to vouchers or any other alternative is a dollar that public schools don’t receive,” said OCEASF Executive Director William Phillis, a former assistant superintendent of public instruction in Ohio.

A decades-long debate: Educational liberty v. protecting public schools

The idea of government-funded school vouchers originated as early as the 1950s when economist Milton Friedman began promoting them as a way to restore educational power to parents, Phillis said.

Greg Lawson, a research fellow at right-leaning think tank The Buckeye Institute, said school choice is a matter of protecting Ohioans’ civil liberties. Expanding EdChoice vouchers to desiring K-12 students, he said, will help families find the particular program that fits their child's needs.

“What is really kind of striking to me is that it’s the 21st century,” Lawson said. “We have all kinds of choices at our fingertips, you know? I have Roku, and I can choose individual channels now rather than the full package. … Why can’t we put together a package of [educational] options that meets those needs?”

Unlike public school districts, charter and private schools are subject to fewer state regulations and have greater discretion to determine which students are accepted. Because of that, parents who use vouchers to send their child to a nonpublic school could be forfeiting some of their rights, Phillis said. 

“We don’t know what they do with their voucher money,” he said. “Some school systems are owned by the Bishop – there’s no public ownership, no public accountability, and no public transparency.”

Phillis argued that EdChoice not only siphons taxpayer dollars for private and charter schools that otherwise would have gone to public schools, but he also said there is little evidence pointing to higher academic achievement in nonpublic districts.

Students who use vouchers to attend a private school tend to fare worse on state standardized tests than their public school peers, according to a 2020 Cincinnati Enquirer investigation. In 88% of the 150 cities analyzed in the report, a public school district achieved better state testing results than a private school.

But Lawson said the performance of public school students has faltered in recent years, and learning loss coupled with dwindling state reports cards signifies a need for public education reform.

“This is a mechanism that helps all families be able to get what they need for their students, especially at a time of a rapidly transitioning economy, with the digital economy coming online, we need to be able to get students ready,” Lawson said.

Students living in low-income, marginalized areas of Ohio – often limited to low-performing districts – could serve to benefit the most from EdChoice scholarships, the conservative advocacy group Center for Christian Virtue told NBC4 in August.

Phillis wasn’t so convinced, characterizing EdChoice as “publicly supported discrimination and segregation.” He provided a hypothetical scenario – a private high school that charges $15,000 tuition per pupil and accepts a $7,500 voucher – to make his case.

“Is there going to be an inner-city, minority poor kid in Cleveland or any other urban center that can pay the other $7,500? I don’t think so,” he said.

200+ public school districts say ‘Vouchers Hurt Ohio’

Eric Brown, a member of the Columbus school board and former chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, argues that Ohio's EdChoice Program of school vouchers is violating the state Constitution's requirement for a system of common schools, with standards and resources for all Ohioans, on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. A lawsuit filed this week alleges Ohio's school voucher system is unconstitutional because it's creating a separate system of funding private schools with public dollars. (AP Photo/Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

While Ohio lawmakers flesh out the details of the proposed SB 368, more than 200 public school districts across the state await a ruling from a Franklin County judge tasked with determining whether EdChoice is constitutional.

Brown and other plaintiffs pointed to the Ohio Constitution’s mandate that the state legislature provides one single system of public education, not multiple. 

“If a family decided that a child should not be in the public schools and have a different arrangement, they can do that – there’s nothing stopping them from doing it,” Brown said. “But they’re using public dollars to do it.”

Lawson said he doesn’t think Brown’s argument will hold up in court. The question of EdChoice’s constitutionality was already answered, he said, pointing to a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld Cleveland’s state-funded voucher program. 

“Frankly, I think it’s pretty unconscionable that the people are suing to try to take away options from parents,” Lawson said.

The bill, introduced late last month, is currently assigned to the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee.