A new proposal in the Ohio House of Representatives, dubbed the “backpack bill,” would cost more than a billion dollars if all eligible students would take advantage of the scholarship.
But the lawmakers proposing House Bill 11 — Rep. Marilyn John, R-Richland County, and Rep. Riordan McClain, R-Upper Sandusky — don’t anticipate the actual cost to be anywhere close to the $1.13 billion estimated in a fiscal report for HB 11 by the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission, the group responsible for sticking a price tag on all legislation that will cost the state money.
“The number is an unrealistic expectation,” McClain said Tuesday afternoon during a press conference. “It is a 100% take-up rate and that is physically impossible.”
Instead, McClain said he expects the scholarship program would cost $113 million in its first year.
“A 10% starting line is a reasonable expectation for year one based on capacity and other things getting the program up and running,” he said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
The bill’s Backpack Scholarship Program would make all public, nonpublic, and homeschool students in grades K-12 eligible for a state scholarship that would be funded through an education savings account (ESA) to go to a participating nonpublic school or receive home schooling. Parents could use the ESA to pay for tuition, fees, uniforms, and books.
What HB 11 proposes differs from EdChoice, the state’s largest voucher program, which funnels tax dollars to tuition, not fees. The companion bill Senate Bill 11 includes charter and non-public schools, but HB 11 includes non-charter and home schooling.
“We want them (the families) to find the right fit for them,” McClain said. “For many of them it will continue to be the public schools who are meeting their needs, but for those that it’s not, we think there should be flexibility given to parents to make those choices for their children because we believe they know them best.”
Homeschool in Ohio has come under security lately after an Upper Sandusky couple recently were discovered to be the leaders of the neo-Nazi “Dissident Homeschool” Telegram channel that distributes lesson plans to 2,400 members.
“That’s one family,” John said. “Obviously no one in this room wants that type of propaganda taught, but I also don’t think we should be making public policy based on one incident. That one example does not represent the home school families in the state of Ohio.”
McClain is the father of five and homeschools his children.
HB 11 would start in the 2024-25 school year and scholarships would be $5,500 for students in grades K-8 and $7,500 for grades 9-12.
HB 11 would eliminate the EdChoice and Cleveland Scholarship Program on July 1, 2024, but an eligible student who received either of those scholarships may apply for a backpack scholarship.
Under HB 11, students who receive a scholarship under the Autism Scholarship Program or the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program could also apply for an ESA under the Backpack Scholarship Program.
“This bill is not anti-public schools,” John said. “My children went to public schools and received a quality education.”
McClain and John said they both support the Fair School Funding Plan.
“I support defining what it costs to educate a child in Ohio, fully fund that program and then giving parents choice,” McClain said. “I think making sure that we allocate the proper funding to our educational system and prioritizing that as a state budget is key, but at the end of the day, to foster an environment that ultimately meets the needs of students we need to give parents choice.”
Walter Blanks Jr., a spokesperson for the American Federation for Children, shared during the press conference how he went to a different school almost every year growing up in Columbus and was bullied before receiving an EdChoice scholarship which allowed him to attend private school.
“I could focus on my learning,” Blanks said. “I wasn’t late every day to class hiding from bullies in the bathroom. I was able to really explore what I was good at.”
About 60 people attended Tuesday afternoon’s press conference, including about a dozen students wearing their school uniforms, ranging from khaki shirts to blazers, and sporting “Pass the bill” stickers.
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