Ohio education and the ‘ACE’ up its sleeve

Greg R. Lawson Sep 02, 2021

This opinion piece was first published in The Lima News.

A new school year with new challenges for families across Ohio has begun. The COVID-19 delta variant continues to roil plans for what many had hoped would be a more normal school year. Health concerns are paramount, of course, but questions also remain about the quality of education and the limitations on in-person instruction imposed by the pandemic. Academic ground was lost last year and students, parents, and teachers need to find creative ways to regain it.

Fortunately, state policymakers, including Ohio’s Senate President Matt Huffman (R- Lima) and House Speaker Bob Cupp (R- Lima), have recognized the educational challenges that families face—and the financial burdens that those challenges can pose. To help, state leaders have expanded school choice options to reach more students and families, offering them more than a one-size-fits-all, hand-me-down approach to public education.

Among the most innovative solutions so far is the new Afterschool Child Enrichment—or ACE—Education Savings Account Program. The ACE program will deploy $125 million in federal COVID-relief funds over the next two years to establish education savings accounts—or ESAs—that eligible families can spend on a variety of educational resources. By Dec. 1, 2021, on a first-come-first-serve basis, Ohio will deposit $500 into designated ESAs for families who request them. A single parent, single child household earning around $52,000 per year, for example, will have an extra $500 to help pay for educational aids, such as tuition at learning centers, tutoring, or curricula. And with tutors charging an average of $26 per hour in Ohio, that $500 can help families pay for nearly 20 hours of afterschool help.

The ACE program takes another solid step in the right direction, especially in light of the pandemic’s persistent challenges. But this is not a one-step race and more remains for state policymakers to do with ESAs and academic options for students and families. 

The Buckeye Institute continues to encourage Ohio to pursue a more robust ESA program to help parents pay for a broader range of educational services, such as online courses, computers, and academic services tailored to meet individual student needs. Ohio’s off-the-rack public education system makes it too hard for too many students to get the academic environment and help they need to thrive in the classroom. 

Jennifer Roberts, of Montgomery County, for example, recently explained the frustrations her autistic daughter faced in a traditional public school. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been on the phone or down in the principal’s office ready to scream,” she said. She even looked into open enrollment for her daughter, but there were no districts nearby offering that option. Fortunately, Ms. Roberts obtained a school voucher, but her experience is not unique and ESAs should be more readily available to help.

Federal dollars and special savings accounts, of course, are not the only tools in the education policy toolbox—and other tools can and should be used to empower parents and improve academic achievement. Ohio policymakers have wisely expanded other school choice programs: adding more EdChoice vouchers, making more money available for other school choice initiatives, and offering new tax credits for home school expenses and donations to non-profit organizations that give scholarships to low-income students.

The new school year and the delta variant may deal many students a pretty tough academic hand, but education savings accounts may offer families the proverbial “ACE” up the sleeve. Ohio should continue expanding its school choice initiatives and make it easier and more affordable for K-12 students to get the quality education and academic resources they need.

Greg R. Lawson is a research fellow at The Buckeye Institute.