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Senator proposes statewide scholarship program for private schools

By Kat Tenbarge
The Columbus Dispatch

(February 21, 2017) — In the continued legislative push favoring school choice in Ohio, a lawmaker introduced a plan on Tuesday designed to help middle-class parents afford to send their kids to the private school of their choice.

Three voucher scholarship programs already exist, but state Sen. Matt Huffman wants to consolidate and streamline the system by creating the Ohio Opportunity Scholarship.

“If you didn’t happen to live in the right ZIP code or be in a particular place, the middle class has really been shut out of the voucher opportunity in the state of Ohio,” said Huffman, a Republican from Lima.

“The changes are recognition of a part of a system that has sort of been jury-rigged over the past couple of years, for a variety of reasons, but also recognition that we need to allow school choice for everyone, not just those who have the ability to move to wherever they want.”

The bill is being introduced without a cap on the number of available scholarships. Eligibility would be based on income; students whose families make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level would receive the full $5,000; those with income between 200 percent and 400 percent would get $2,500.

Associations representing superintendents, school boards and school treasurers issued a joint statement saying Ohio’s current voucher system already expands choice to those who need it most: families in low-performing schools whose low-income levels limit their ability to move to another district or pay private school tuition.

But Huffman’s scholarship structure would remove the stipulation that a student has to live in a district with “failing schools.”

He said he has never liked the concept of labeling a school as failing or low-performing. His hometown district, Lima City Schools, has been tagged that way.

“Lima Senior High School may have half of their kids who are straight ‘A’ students, college-bound, but the other half of the kids who aren’t and struggle and have a variety of home problems,” Huffman said. “Because of that, the high school is labeled as failing. Well, that’s unfair to the teachers, the staff and the students. This is a recognition of the failure of the failing schools model and how we treat educational policy.”

With funding directly from the state, money would not be subtracted from public schools’ bottom lines, eliminating the “district deduct” widely criticized for charter schools — public schools that are privately operated.

The three public-education associations said Huffman’s proposed expansion of the voucher program would aid families that already can afford those options.

School Choice Ohio released a statement applauding the proposal, which is similar to what Huffman said is a successful scholarship effort in Indiana. In Ohio, he estimates that the average taxpayer pays $11,000 a year per pupil for public education — a figure that includes state and local tax dollars — and that the cost of his scholarship cuts that cost in half.

“If you look at a particular window or a particular budget, you can say it will cost more or you can say it will cost less,” Huffman said.

“We know private schools, to the taxpayer, cost less than that. There are some schools — for example, nonchartered private schools — that cost even less. We’re educating thousands of kids in those schools, at no cost to the taxpayer.”

There currently are 396 nonchartered private schools in Ohio, most of them small. State figures show that taxpayers pick up $1,209 per pupil of the cost of chartered private schools’ administrative and auxiliary services.