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Religious groups push for per pupil ‘backpack bill’ funding of education in Ohio




Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

A bill to vastly expand Ohio private school vouchers saw hours of testimony in a state Senate committee this week, as discussion about the future of education funding, both public and private, ramps up in the Statehouse.

“This has never been about our public school district, it is about our children,” said Jacob Bowling, a parent whose four kids go to private schools.

Almost all those who spoke in support this week for Senate Bill 11 — known as a “backpack bill” to allow educational funding to go with the student rather than the district — came from religious schools or backgrounds.

School funding should be on a child-by-child basis, they say, to avoid public schools who may not meet their performance standards, “social justice” concerns, or, some allege without evidence, are “sexualizing” students.

“Our voices are being silenced and our children are being morally injured and sexualized prematurely by the public schools under the guise of social education,” Dr. Asim Farooqui, of the Muslim Parental Rights Advocacy Group, told the Ohio Senate Education Committee. “Moral decay is encouraged to its fullest.”

Farooqui cited books like the 1937 novel “Of Mice and Men” and a book of poetry called “The Sun and Her Flowers” as instances in which school libraries and syllabi are “inundated with obscene, offensive pornographic books.”

He did not specify any particular school district when citing these books, or any certain instances of complaints filed about the books, but alleged that changes in the “moral landscape” of public schools “have dire consequences not just for the future of our children’s education but their moral psychosocial development.”

Senate Bill 11, he and other supporters of the bill say, would create “healthy competition” for schools, and therefore boost performance of students and teacher job satisfaction.

“The morality of our students has been challenged through the years and it has caused moral injury to our students,” Farooqui said, comparing the impacts to veterans coming back from a war. “And it shows in our students.”

SB 11, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Sandra O’Brien of Ashtabula County, aims to expand the state’s private voucher program to allow all students to be eligible for vouchers, and even to provide tax credits to homeschoolers, though the support for that is mixed.

When asked if he has heard concerns from parents about expanding vouchers, Raymond Kochis, of Cincinnati Christian Schools, said he sees growing support for the program in his area.

“I believe that parents and our school community value the opportunity of school choice,” Kochis said. “They value the opportunity to have a say in where they attend.”

“School choice” is a term being used typically by GOP lawmakers nationwide who support the use of private schools and vouchers to move students to those schools, while harshly criticizing the public school system.

Critics of the term, and private school voucher programs in general, say funding private school vouchers through the state takes away needed funding from public schools, who still house a vast majority of students in the state.

While Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens has said the chamber’s priority bills will include funding of the Fair School Funding Plan, meant to phase in funding for public schools based on the real cost of student education, he also stands by a bill in the House similar to SB 11, that would expand vouchers.

It’s unclear how both will be funded, whether that be through the state budget set to be approved this year, or through other means, especially as estimates of a GOP change to the state’s flat tax could cost schools, along with local governments, more than $1 billion in state funding.

This may set the stage for further requests for levy approvals from Ohio voters across the state.

fiscal analysis of SB 11 provided by the Legislative Service Commission estimated a $528 million increase in state expenditures for both fiscal years 2024 and 2025 if all chartered nonpublic school students took a scholarship, a total of more than 90,000 students.

“However, not all of these students may receive an EdChoice scholarship for various reasons, meaning that the bill’s costs will likely be lower to some extent especially in the early years of the program,” the fiscal analysis stated.

Still, public school districts who lost students to the vouchers could lose about $69 million in state aid in 2024, and just over $66 million in 2025 if the bill passes as currently written, the LSC found.

To reduce the impact, the overall school funding formula would have to include provisions to hold public schools harmless or guarantee the schools money even if vouchers are used.

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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