Backpack bill faces uphill fight

Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Sandra O’Brien, whose district includes all of Trumbull County, would make significant changes to school funding by providing public dollars for students to attend private schools.

While it’s probable the bill eventually will pass in the state Senate, it faces a much greater challenge in the Ohio House.

Republicans have supermajorities in both legislative bodies, but are having an internal fight in the House. A companion bill to O’Brien’s Parent Education Freedom Act — also known as the backpack bill — is a likely casualty. That companion bill was introduced almost a year ago in the House and never made it to the floor for a vote.

State Rep. Derek Merrin, R-Monclova, was going to be the next House speaker until state Rep. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, and his backers cut a deal with House Democrats to get their votes. The plan worked with Stephens elected speaker 54-43 with the 32 House Democrats joining 22 Republicans supporting him.

There are still a lot of tension between the supporters of Merrin and Stephens that are not going away.

While Democratic leadership said nothing was promised from Stephens for their support, it is strongly believed the speaker won’t consider legislation to totally ban abortions or to support the anti-union right-to-work bill or the backpack bill.

Merrin would have gone in the other direction had he been elected speaker.

O’Brien’s bill would provide $5,500 for students in grades K-8 and $7,500 for those in grades 9-12 to be “used at any public, community or chartered nonpublic school.” It expands the current EdChoice Scholarship program in Cleveland to all of Ohio.

O’Brien, R-Lenox, said her bill “empowers our parents, encourages healthy competition and makes Ohio an even better state to raise a family. Every parent has the right to choose a school that best meets their student’s needs, and I look forward to this bill allowing Ohio’s parents to make those choices.”

O’Brien introduced the same legislation Nov. 29 in the Senate during lame-duck session. While Republicans passed a number of bills during that rushed session, O’Brien’s proposal had a single hearing on Dec. 6 in front of the Senate Primary and Secondary Education Committee, which was renamed the Senate Education Committee for this legislative session,and it went no further.

This bill also increases the tax credit for those home-schooled from $250 a school year to $2,000.

The bill was assigned to the Education Committee of which O’Brien, a former school teacher, is a member.

During her sponsorship testimony last month, O’Brien said: “Ohio should act now and empower our families to make the best education choices. We need to listen to our parents who want a voice in their children’s education. We need to allow them to spend their hard-earned tax dollars on the school of their choice. My bill puts educational options within the reach of every parent in Ohio. It empowers our parents, is fairer to taxpaying parents, encourages healthy competition and makes Ohio an even better state to raise a family. I urge support of this bill so every parent has the resources to make informed decisions abut their child’s educational future.”

The bill is opposed by House Democrats and the Ohio Education Association, Ohio’s largest public school teachers’ union.

OEA President Scott DiMauro has said the bill “would force local communities to rely even more heavily on local property taxes to fund schools for the 90 percent of Ohio children who attend public schools.”

DiMauro added: “Dumping precious resources into a universal voucher system that provides zero auditing requirements for the private schools that would rake in the taxpayers’ cash is just wrong. This is especially true now when Ohio finally has a public school funding system worth investing in after the adoption of the Fair School Funding Plan in the last state budget. Our lawmakers must hold up their end of the deal to fully fund that system before going off on yet another ideological misadventure with our hard-earned tax dollars.”

There won’t be a fast resolution to this issue, and it is probably a nonstarter in the Ohio House unless enough Republicans can pressure Stephens — and that is highly unlikely.

Skolnick covers politics for The Vindicator and the Tribune Chronicle.


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