The Blade Saturday Essay: Congress Should Follow Ohio School Choice Lead

By Eric “Yitz” Frank, President of School Choice Ohio & Peter Murphy, Senior Advisor to the Invest in Education Coalition, The Blade, February 3, 2024

Ohio made education history nearly 22 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris (2002) that the city of Cleveland’s education voucher program was constitutional, such that parents, not the government, freely exercised their First Amendment religious freedom to select schools for their children and that the state was properly neutral.

Education freedom through school choice has expanded in Ohio and across America since that landmark ruling, especially in recent years since the coronavirus pandemic, so there was much to celebrate this fourth week of January during annual National School Choice Week. But even more can and must be done in Ohio and across America to empower parents and ensure that every elementary and secondary school student can access the highest-quality education available.

The Zelman case is a historic descendent of the 1954 case, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, when the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation based on students’ skin color is unequal and therefore unconstitutional.

Both the Brown and Zelman rulings forever changed the direction of elementary and secondary education in a positive way. Yet both cases were sharply criticized by the public education establishment at the time they were decided, and both cases only gradually took effect due to establishment opposition. For example, not until 1970 did the percentage of Black students in Southern states attending majority white schools exceed 33 percent, which was 44 percent in 1988.

In 2002, when the Zelman school voucher case was decided, fewer than 100,000 elementary and secondary students were supported by government school choice programs. It took a decade to exceed 200,000 students. By 2020, this number tripled to more than 600,000 students, yet barely 1 percent of public school enrollment. Then the pandemic hit.

Ohio and many other states stepped up their efforts to expand K-12 educational choice in the wake of the public education establishment’s prolonged closure of district-operated schools. For this 2023-24 school year, EdChoice estimates nearly 1 million students are publicly supported to some degree in private schools, an increase of two-thirds in just four years, including 144,000 Ohio students.

Still, challenges remain to ensure that K-12 students attain the freedom to attend the best, most suitable schools, including in Ohio. The state’s EdChoice Scholarship program, which helps 42,000 students with an average scholarship of just over $6,000, remains only 40 percent of the per pupil spending for public schools. Though the state expanded this program in 2023 to universal student eligibility, more work needs to be done to strengthen the purchasing power of parents whose children are enrolled so that families have access to the broadest array of options.

While 1 million students benefiting from school choice nationwide is impressive, it remains just 2 percent of public school enrollment nearly a generation after Zelman. The U.S. Congress should step in to ensure education freedom is protected and expanded for students in every state. This starts with passing into law the proposed Educational Choice for Children Act (ECCA), which would provide scholarships for students in K-12 grade levels to attend schools of their parents’ choice, complementing Ohio’s state-level school choice offerings.

Specifically, the ECCA would generate scholarships for approximately two million students funded by private charitable donations, not government funds, by providing a 100 percent nonrefundable credit against federal income and business taxes for donations to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations (SGO). This tax incentive in various forms has been adopted in nearly two dozen states, including Ohio, but the ECCA would result in more than $9 billion nationwide in new scholarship funding for elementary and secondary school children.

Enacting the ECCA would benefit students in the 19 states with no school choice opportunities, supplement educational support for students in Ohio and other states with existing choice programs and empower every parent of a school-age child as a potential education customer who could shop for an alternative school for their child.

If the ECCA becomes law, 90-plus percent of students would continue to be educated in district public schools, but those schools would face greater competition as more nonwealthy parents might access scholarship opportunities to transfer their child elsewhere.

The Educational Choice for Children Act would first and foremost benefit students, who would gain greater access to educational options. But children in all schools—public, private, charter, and religious—stand to gain since their parent customers would have increased leverage to demand and expect quality education.

This ‘win-win’ formula is worth celebrating and expanding during National School Choice Week.

Eric “Yitz” Frank is the President of School Choice Ohio; Peter Murphy is Senior Advisor to the Invest in Education Coalition.

Read the full article from The Blade here.