Ohio needs flexible and affordable school choice, especially under COVID-19’s ongoing threat

Greg R. Lawson Jun 08, 2020

This opinion piece appeared in the Ohio Gadfly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented disruption for Ohio students across the state. Schools closed for most of the second semester, proms and graduations were cancelled, and plans for returning to classrooms and cafeterias next year remain murky at best.

Now is the time for Ohio to make it easier—not harder—for parents to meet the educational needs of their children. The state’s school choice options, including charter schools, voucher programs, open enrollment, and scholarships like EdChoice, have proven overwhelmingly popular with parents and students. By contrast, the public school system’s bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all approach continues to trap thousands of students in schools ill-suited to meet their unique needs.

Now is the time to build on the success of Ohio’s school-choice initiatives, not tear them down. As families adjust to education’s “new normal” and look for the best educational environment for their child’s growth, Ohio should continue pursuing commonsense reforms and alternatives to the public school model. Unfortunately, school-choice opponents have threatened to pursue a misguided lawsuit challenging Ohio’s voucher programs that seeks to strip parents and students of their learning options, eliminate Ohio’s successful EdChoice initiative, and erode support for future pro-education solutions.

Instead of squashing learning opportunities, Ohio should bolster and expand school-choice programs that will help families afford better, more effective schooling. Especially now, as we adjust and warily reopen schools despite the virus’s ongoing threat, educational dollars should follow students, not simply flow to preordained school districts. In addition to the school-choice options already available, policymakers should explore state and federally funded education savings accounts, or ESAs, that can help families purchase educational alternatives and learning support services. 

Unlike vouchers, ESAs do more than cover school tuition. ESAs are specialized accounts administered by the state that, much like a debit card, parents may spend on educational products or services. These accounts boast several significant advantages. They help families pay for educational resources, textbooks, online courses, tutors, private music or art lessons, and curriculum enhancements—regardless of whether they enroll their children in public or private schools or homeschool them. They give parents control over how to spend the state-paid share of their child’s education funding. They create incentives to find the best education options at competitive prices. And they give families and educators more flexibility to design and afford personalized learning programs to augment traditional K–12 classrooms. Such resources and flexibility may prove particularly critical as “normalcy” remains elusive, and families, teachers, and administrators grapple with the threat of another wave of COVID-19.

Several states already use ESAs effectively to help families and educators better meet the individual needs of students. Ohio should join states like Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee in the burgeoning ESA initiative. Waiting to create feasible educational funding sources that support alternatives to public education will only make the festering problem worse. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has led families to carefully scrutinize their educational choices and take charge of their children’s schooling. Creating ESA options for a more customized education would transition Ohio away from funding bureaucratic education, and would allow funding to flow more freely to families and students. Instead of merely inflating state education spending, Ohio could better serve families by empowering them to decide how and where their education tax dollars are spent.

Now more than ever Ohio needs well-designed ESA and school-choice programs that foster flexibility and affordability. Ohio doesn’t need regressive lawsuits and anti-education efforts designed to wrest control away from parents, limit learning options, and further empower the public school monolith that has failed our children for too long. 

Greg R. Lawson is a research fellow at The Buckeye Institute and the author of Giving Families Certainty: Enhancing Education with Education Savings Accounts.