A religious lobby group helped draft an Ohio bill that would use public school funds for private schools | Ohio News | Cincinnati

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A religious group wants public school funds to follow students into private schools.

An Ohio bill that would send public education money to private schools if a student chooses to attend one was drafted with help from the religious lobby group Center for Christian Virtue and a think tank that promotes charter schools.

Ohio House Bill 290 – colloquially referred to as the “backpack bill” – would allow “families to choose the option for all calculated funding amounts associated with educating students for follow in the public and non-public schools they attend”.

Introduced by State Representatives Riordan McClain, R-Upper Sandusky, and Marilyn S. John, R-Richland County, on May 11, 2021, HB 290 creates a voucher system in which state dollars follow students even if they start attending private, religious, or charter schools.

The Center for Christian Virtue’s (CCV) support for HB 290 is well known, with CCV President Aaron Baer speaking at a press conference on the bill last October. [CityBeat note: The Center for Christian Virtue previously was known as Citizens for Community Values. The Columbus Dispatch has reported frequently on both CCV and Baer, who has lobbied against bills and actions that support LGBTQ+ rights. In 2021, CCV policy director David Mahan gave an anti-transgender sermon at Crossroads Church in Oakley. Brian Tome, senior pastor at Crossroads, had approved Mahan’s visit, and members of the community staged a protest against Crossroads, Tome and Mahan.]

CCV created a website in its name and said it “allows families to choose the educational option that best meets their needs” in a press release.

Initially, CCV’s role in introducing the HB 290 would seem minimal, relegated to encouraging John and McClain.

However, documents obtained by The Ohio Capital Journal through a public records request reveal that CCV’s involvement in HB 290 was more extensive than previously known, and included advising and promoting outside groups like Heritage Action and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Last February, a McClain legislative aide emailed a draft of the bill to CCV legislative liaison Nilani Jawahar and CCV lobbyist and deputy director of the Ohio Christian Education Network Corrine Vidales, records show. . Also among the recipients were John’s Legislative Assistant and the Legislative and Legal Affairs staff of Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague.

In the email sent on February 8, 2022, McClain’s assistant says she submitted the document “for your review” and asks that they let her know if there are “any additional thoughts or comments that I can pass on to LSC” – the nonpartisan Legislative Services Commission that assists legislators with the technical drafting of legislation.

“Thank you for passing this on,” replied Troy Mclintosh, executive director of the CCV-affiliated Ohio Christian Education Network, the next day. “I think that accurately reflects the discussion we had.”

When Mclintosh asked if McClain and John were drafting a sub-bill with phased eligibility for private school students, the aide responded by saying, “I can have another version drafted with the phase” and asked ” any examples or advice in terms of what I should ask LSC to do. »

CCV’s advice did not stop there.

In a Feb. 14 email, Vidales summarized McClain and John’s talking points ahead of their Feb. 15 testimony before the Ohio House Finance Committee.

“We don’t fund private schools, we fund families,” Vidales said. “If you think it’s about defunding public schools, why? If parents are given the opportunity to leave, will they? Responsibility – if a private school fails, families can leave. Public schools don’t have that.

Vidales also sent emails sharing numbers on learning about the pandemic “before our strategy call today,” and an attachment of CCV’s counter-arguments against the claims in a Franklin County Common Pleas lawsuit. Court against Ohio’s private school funding program which was brought by the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding, a group of 100 public school districts.

Vidales said McIntosh would pursue parent satisfaction studies, which he later did.

In her testimony, John said, “Children are doing better and parent satisfaction – one of the best predictors of student achievement – ​​is significantly higher,” referring to the two studies shared with her by Mclintosh l previous afternoon.

Both studies were created by EdChoice, an Indiana-based think tank that advocates for school choice. The Ohio private school voucher program is also called EdChoice.

John later said that HB 290 is not an “anti-public school bill” but rather a “pro-child, pro-parent, pro-family bill”. Throughout testimony from the two lawmakers, CCV Chairman Aaron Baer can be seen watching in the background.

Amid the Columbus City schools strike this week, the Columbus Expedition reported Tuesday, the Center for Christian Virtue bought advertising on six billboards around Columbus promoting a website for the legislation. The website attacks the Columbus School District as “failing students” and promotes private schools.

The Center for Christian Virtue was not the only interest group involved in the creation of the backpack bill.

Mclintosh sent a draft of the bill to Stephanie Kruez, regional director of Heritage Action, the policy arm of the right-wing think tank, The Heritage Foundation.

In 2021, Mother Jones published an article in which Heritage Action executive director Jessica Anderson admitted to crafting voter restriction laws in states across the country, using “sentinels” to give them a “grassroots, low-level vibe.” at the top,” and occasionally drafting laws on behalf of legislators.

Responding to McIntosh on March 16, Heritage Action’s Kruez admitted that she had yet to have conversations about what changes would be “essential for Heritage to support the bill,” but said that Heritage ” seeks to become more involved in school choice bills in the future.” , and more active in the state legislatures generally.

Kruez said he “ran through the text by Johnathan Butcher,” Heritage’s political analyst, then went over the bill, pointing to specific lines with revisions and comments.

Some are complementary: “Lines 71 to 76 are very good”, and other criticisms, “Lines 61 to 63 on page 3 will hurt in a court case”.

Other suggestions included, “Lines 104-110 should be outsourced to a private contractor” and “there needs to be an appeals process for parents who intentionally or unintentionally violated the law.”

Addressing the idea of ​​phasing in private school students, Kruez also said, “It’s usually best to start with only public school students as eligible and then add private school students later, but this strategy is different from state to state.”

Mclintosh emailed him back the next day, calling Kreuz’s comments “helpful” and saying that CCV “would love to have Heritage’s support behind this.”

McIntosh then forwarded the thread to McClain and John, asking them to “take a look and see if you think there are things we could implement to improve the bill.”

“It would be great to gain their support for this,” he said. “Some of their comments are helpful, some I really don’t understand where they’re coming from.”

Kruez, who answered the phone with her name when contacted by Capital Journal to discuss her work on HB 290 — and the role Heritage Action is playing in school choice bills across the United States – hung up.

Heritage Foundation data analyst Connor McCarthy was asked if such line-by-line reviews with lawmakers of proposed legislation were common with Heritage Action.

“Heritage Action for America enables unprecedented engagement and communication with concerned citizens who want to be part of the national dialogue with members of Congress, and they work closely with experts from the Heritage Foundation to promote heritage policy and hold the leaders of our nation accountable,” he said.

A legislative aide to John included in the email chains was also questioned about Heritage Action’s influence on HB 290.

“HB 290 was crafted by Representatives McClain and John through stakeholder meetings with internal and external sources, other state agencies, and members of the public. They also reviewed the legislation that was developed and/ or adopted in other states,” he said.

On May 24, CCV hosted a luncheon for legislators at the Statehouse on HB 290 hosted in partnership with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is an organization of conservative and right-wing state legislators known for producing model legislation to introduce in state legislatures across the country.

In a May 6 email invitation to state Rep. Christopher Plummer, records show, Mcintosh calls the meeting a “policy luncheon of legislators” where HB 290 will be discussed. Promotional material for the event referred to it as the “Backpack Bill Briefing”.

Plummer did not respond to requests for comment.

The Center for Christian Virtue also did not respond to requests for comment.

This story was originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal and is republished here with permission.

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