CLEVELAND, Ohio – A plan to expand Ohio’s private school tuition voucher program to more middle-class families could soon go to vote in the Ohio House, despite stalling out in the Senate earlier this year.
House Bill 200, just like the earlier proposal in the Senate from State Sen. Matt Huffman, would combine the three voucher programs Ohio has now — one with strict income requirements, one for students in “failing” schools and one for only Cleveland residents — into a single program.
The new “Opportunity Scholarships” would give families a state subsidy toward private school tuition, regardless of where in Ohio they live, regardless of the rating of their local public school, and with relaxed income restrictions.
If the bill passes, families would receive $5,000 in state tax money to help pay tuition — almost always at religious schools — for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and $7,500 for high school students.
That’s an increase from the $4,250 or $4,650 for elementary school and the $5,700 to $6,000 the existing plans offer now.
State Rep. Kyle Koehler, a Springfield Republican who sponsored the bill, said that affluent families can choose where to send their kids to school by moving to a different district or by paying tuition, but not everyone can.
“We have lots of families that do not have the ability to do that,” Koehler said. “This will allow more parents to have the opportunity to say ‘I want something better for my child.'”
The House Education Committee made two big adjustments Tuesday to Koehler’s plan, which had matched Huffman’s. Because of concerns about how much money additional vouchers would cost — a total that is hotly debated and hard to estimate — the committee won’t lower family income limits as much, or make them available to as many families, as Koehler and Huffman had proposed.
The legislators had wanted to make full vouchers available to families making up to twice the federal poverty level — about $49,000 for a family of four — with reduced amounts up to four times of the federal poverty level — about $98,000 for a family of four.
That was changed Tuesday to offering reduced vouchers just up to three times the poverty level — a little under $74,000.
With that change, vouchers would be available to about 60 percent of Ohio families, instead of the 74 percent Huffman and Koehler had sought.
The committee also killed a proposal to let families bank any voucher money left over after paying tuition in an “educational savings account” to spend on schools in future years.
Though committee chairman Andrew Brenner, a Powell Republican, would not commit to any date for a vote, Koehler hopes the bill could be passed by the committee and go to a full House vote in the next two weeks.
If the House passes a version of the bill, it would go to the Senate, where Huffman’s proposal had some hearings early this year but gained no traction. State Sen. Peggy Lehner, the Kettering Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, had concerns about the plan, particularly as the state was debating setting a tight budget.
Huffman said he hopes to push the plan again if the House bill passes.
“If the House can do work, we’ll take it from there,” he said.
Huffman was disappointed that the income cap was tightened from what he proposed, but said, “You have to look at it as a big picture process.” He noted that until a few years ago, Ohio had no income-based vouchers at all.
“Frankly, I don’t think there should be any income limit, but 300 percent is better than 200 percent,” he said.
House Democrats, though, are not fans of the plan, even after the cuts. The exact costs are hard to estimate because of the limited private school seats in Ohio and inexact guesses of how many families would want to use the vouchers. But estimates between $35 and $100 million or more raise worries that state dollars that could help public schools will be drained.
Click here for the full financial analysis by the Legislative Service Commission, the non-partisan research arm of the legislature. Note that this estimate was prepared assuming the 400 percent cap, not the new 300 percent one.
State Rep. Teresa Fedor of Toledo, the ranking Democrat on the education committee, called the plan “devastating to public school financing.”
“Republicans continue the fleecing of our public school money, with no accountability and poor results,” she said.
State Rep. Kent Smith, a Euclid Democrat also on the education committee, called the plan “fiscally irresponsible.”
“You’ll be spending a colossal amount of money on a few families while you’re grossly underfunding public schools,” he said.
Smith said he believes that most families that would use the vouchers already have students in private schools.
“You’ll be subsidizing a family expenditure that would occur regardless,” he said.