Greg R. Lawson: School choice for every child, every family, every community

Ohio’s voucher programs and other school choice options need to be made available to every child and every family in every community. The state has a $6 billion surplus of taxpayer money sitting in its coffers. As the Ohio Senate finalizes the state’s biennial budget, it should direct some of that excess to pay for putting K-12 students and their academic success first.

The COVID school closures led to historic declines in scholastic performance across the state. Studies out of The Ohio State University and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute show alarming learning loss. The Fordham Institute study, for example, reports that statewide math proficiency scores have dropped 10 percent among fourth and sixth graders and have fallen 14 percent among eighth graders compared to the academic years just before the pandemic.

As a long-time school choice champion, Senate President Matt Huffman knows that voucher programs and other school choice initiatives can help students regain lost ground and reverse these disturbing trends. School vouchers have been successful across the country at improving high school graduation and college enrollment rates—two keys to long-term success. For his part, Gov. Mike DeWine has rightly proposed expanding eligibility for Ohio’s premier voucher program, EdChoice, to include families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line. The Ohio House of Representatives went further in its budget proposal and extended EdChoice eligibility to 450 percent of that line.

Both proposals are commendable, but the Ohio Senate can do even better. EdChoice vouchers should be available for every student, regardless of zip code or household income. And with billions of surplus dollars stashed in Columbus, now is the time.

Consider that even under the House’s proposed budget, many working-class families around the state would still be ineligible for an EdChoice voucher. A recent analysis by The Buckeye Institute found that under the House’s and administration’s budget proposals a two-income, one-child family in Lima with a postal worker and a nurse each earning the median pay in their fields would not qualify for an EdChoice voucher.

Similarly, neither would a two-child Cleveland household with a power-line installer and a plumber, or a Dayton-area police officer and teacher with two kids. These working-class families deserve the same opportunity to help their children succeed in school with an educational environment that best fits their students’ needs. And leaders in the General Assembly should use the state’s current largesse to ensure that they have it.

Removing household income eligibility restrictions would allow every family in Ohio to choose the school and learning environment that is right for them. Such restrictions penalize children in hardworking families and create perverse disincentives for parents to reduce their income or risk losing their child’s voucher. Child-rearing parents have enough difficult choices to make, that should never be one of them.

Ohio was an early adopter of school choice programs and has remained a national leader in helping students find the right academic fit. Other states have since followed Ohio’s school choice lead — especially in the wake of pandemic lockdowns and learning loss — and have adopted universal voucher programs for their students.

Others are now pursuing even bolder policies. Arizona, Iowa, Utah and Florida, for example, have embraced education savings accounts to help families pay for academic resources, tutors and other scholastic aids, because as every parent knows, education costs more than just tuition.

Facing catastrophic learning loss among its K-12 constituents but blessed with record cash-on-hand, the Ohio General Assembly can afford — at the very least — to expand EdChoice eligibility to include every child in every family living in every community. It can, and it should.

Greg R. Lawson is a research fellow at The Buckeye Institute. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.