Universal school vouchers supporters seek Ohio lawmakers’ attention after a Statehouse rally

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — As the Senate is preparing to release its version of the two-year state budget, supporters of universal vouchers for Ohio’s K-12 students gathered to encourage them to include the “Backpack Bill”.

A group of parochial school students hold signs to encourage expansion of the state's voucher program at a rally outside the Ohio Statehouse
A group of parochial school students hold signs to encourage expansion of the state’s voucher program at a rally outside the Ohio Statehouse on May 17, 2023. [Jo Ingles | Statehouse News Bureau]
That’s pending legislation that would expand the state’s current voucher program to families who earn more than the income level now specified in the EdChoice voucher program, or live in an ineligible school district to qualify for it.

Yitz Frank, president of School Choice Ohio, said every K-12 student in Ohio should have the opportunity to attend private schools with public vouchers.

“There’s a lot of messy dynamics in any state budget. I think there’s a path to get to universal choice whether it’s the backpack bill or some other mechanism, I think we are on the path to get there,” Frank said.

When asked what that path might look like, Frank wasn’t specific.

“Well, it’s up to the legislators. We have a lot of different ideas. But I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time and appropriately fund our public schools and give families options,” Frank said.

The Backpack Bill was listed as a priority for Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) and his rival for House leadership, Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Monclova Township).

After the bill’s first hearing, the non-partisan Legislative Service Commission, which does fiscal analyses on bills for state lawmakers, looked at what it would cost the state if vouchers were given to all 185,400 students already paying for private schools, non-chartered non-public schools and those who homeschool. Its fiscal note said expenditures would increase $1.13 billion in the first year. Backers of the Backpack Bill disputed that number.

When Gov. Mike DeWine proposed his budget in February, he didn’t include the Backpack Bill, but expanded the EdChoice voucher plan from 250% to 400% of the federal poverty level. That’s around $120,000 a year for a family of four, so it would include most middle-income Ohio families.

When the House considered the budget, members stepped back on the adding in the Backpack Bill. But the House budget did increase DeWine’s EdChoice expansion to 450% of the federal poverty level, or around $135,000 a year for a family of four.

The Senate is now considering the budget and its president, Matt Huffman (R-Lima), has been a staunch advocates for universal vouchers. The Senate’s version of the budget is expected to be released in the next two weeks.