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How Publicly Funded Private School Scholarships Could Reach a District Near You

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Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 7:35 AM

A group of students talk at a private school.

Today, Ohio students who attend low-performing public schools can get publicly funded scholarships – or vouchers – to attend private schools. Legislation to expand those private-school scholarships to children throughout the state is now working its way through the Statehouse. And the scholarships would have an unusual funding source: tax credits.

In the education sector, some Ohio lawmakers are looking south, to Florida. Since 2001, Florida has allowed individuals and businesses to write-off contributions to certain nonprofits. Those nonprofits then turn around and use the donations to pay for low-income children to attend private schools. It’s called a tax credit scholarship.

Bills in Ohio’s House and Senate would establish a similar program in Ohio. Representative Andrew Brenner (R-Powell) is the co-sponsor of one of those bills.

"It’s a free-market kind of solution. It’s a solution where it puts the power back with the parent. They’re going to be the ones making the decisions," he says.

Several other states, including Indiana and Pennsylvania, have similar programs in place.

But in Ohio, school districts facing state funding cuts see these tax-credit scholarships as one more drain on public school resources. The program would encourage more students to leave for private school and, as that happens, the public schools would get less state funding. Besides, critics say, Ohio already has voucher programs that pay for students in low-performing schools and in special education programs to attend private schools.

Damon Asbury is a lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association. He says establishing tax credit scholarships would have the same effect as expanding Ohio’s existing voucher program statewide.

"We see them as an indirect subsidy for private schools using public tax dollars. It’s another way around vouchers. We believe that public school dollars are needed for public schools," he says.

The bills have bipartisan support, but haven’t yet been voted on by the full assemblies. Sponsors expect them to be taken up later this spring.

Note, March 29: The potential financial impact of these new, proposed vouchers isn't clear. Each tax credit would cost the state money. And the way Ohio's schools are currently funded, a student who uses a tax-credit scholarship to attend a private school would not cause huge financial losses for most districts. But Gov. John Kasich has said he plans to introduce a new way of funding schools in 2013. Depending on how Kasich's model is structured, school districts could lose state funding if their enrollments decline. Read more.

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