HB 290: A backpack full of empty promises


By Kathleen Knight Abowitz and Joel Malin - Contributing columnists



The Ohio House is presently considering HB 290, with the euphemistic title, “The Backpack Bill,” sponsored by Riordan McClain and Marilyn John with the appeal that it’s “time to fund students, not schools.” HB 290 would allow families “to choose the option for all computed funding amounts associated with students’ education to follow them to the schools they attend.”

One of HB 290’s sponsors, Rep. McClain, has characterized it a “legislative intent bill,” meaning its purpose at this point is not to lay out a specific plan but rather to spark conversations about “universal vouchers” in Ohio. Rep. McClain noted he particularly wishes to hear from educators in Ohio.

We appreciate this invitation to join the conversation, especially given that Ohio educators have too often been sidelined from key policy conversations in recent years.

Ultimately, we believe that this so-called “backpack” is full of empty promises for Ohio’s students and families.

This bill promises that Ohio’s local and state tax dollars will not only support public schools, but nonpublic schools, too. If passed, HB 290 therefore will fund not only those students who are attending public schools, but also all those who are accepted to attend private schools as well.

In the case of universal vouchers, taxpayer dollars would even promise to subsidize the educational costs for families which have already enrolled their children in private schools. Such families invariably have the financial means to pay tuition without the need for such wasteful state assistance.

Thus, this promise is empty because neither Ohio, nor any other state, can afford to adequately fund education across both public and private sectors. The cost of this model, if the intent is truly to foster high-quality education, would be prohibitively expensive.

In addition, even if it were possible, funding private schools with public tax dollars jeopardizes the church/state boundary. Ohio’s private, independent schools are not open to all students or families, and many of them are based in religious teachings. Keeping private and public sectors separate and independent is an important safeguard of all our freedoms.

The promise to fund individual students, as opposed to the present system of funding public schools, is unconstitutional. In 1851, the Ohio Constitution was amended to add provision for a “secure and thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.” By funding students rather than schools, lawmakers will fail to fulfill a basic constitutional directive.

Then there is perhaps the biggest false promise of all: that school voucher policies provide quality educational opportunities for all families. We need only look at other countries who have already tried these education policies and have the results to show how damaging they are.

Chile, beginning in the 1980s, made vouchers universally available to its students, including via schools managed by private-for profit corporations, much like what is now being proposed in Ohio. Evidence indicates that the Chilean approach has had huge drawbacks — the program “has not only failed to meet its original objectives, but it also provoked several harmful outcomes.”

The Chilean system has become increasingly segregated and unequal. Families with means have used their vouchers to access more and more elite and exclusive private schools. Meanwhile, the public schools — funded only through the value of the vouchers, and increasingly serving families with less means — have been left to crumble from neglect. Indeed, the problems grew so severe that massive protests ensued in the streets until changes were made to improve the system.

Chilean student achievement has steeply declined and compares poorly with international peers: Chile’s students, on average, are now performing “closer to the ranks of developing nations” on international assessments.

Though in the U.S. we do not yet see programs matching the magnitude of Chile’s, some large-scale state-level programs are in existence, and they have been rigorously evaluated. Since 2015, “all major evaluations of statewide voucher programs have found negative effects on student learning.” This includes a recent evaluation of Ohio’s voucher program, which found that “students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.” Similar findings came out of a 2018 evaluation of the nation’s largest voucher program in neighboring Indiana.

Meanwhile, as programs such as Indiana’s have expanded, voucher recipients now most often are families whose children never even attended public schools. Accordingly, the program is largely functioning as an expensive, public-funded subsidy for those who do not need it.

All of this considered, Ohioans should recognize “The Backpack Bill” for what it contains: a whole lot of nothing, but for all the empty promises.

By Kathleen Knight Abowitz and Joel Malin

Contributing columnists

Kathleen Knight Abowitz and Joe Malin are professors in the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University. Knight Abowitz is a member of the Talawanda City School District Board of Education, and founding member of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network.

Kathleen Knight Abowitz and Joe Malin are professors in the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University. Knight Abowitz is a member of the Talawanda City School District Board of Education, and founding member of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network.