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Published: Wednesday, January 29, 2020 @ 9:07 AM
COLUMBUS — UPDATE (12:10 a.m., Jan. 29)
The full Senate approved a slightly amended EdChoice private-school voucher bill just before midnight Tuesday by a 26-7 vote.
Most of the bill was the same as the one reported out of the Higher Education Committee around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
A last-minute amendment appropriated $30 million for public schools that have lost funding as resident students have left for private-school vouchers. Details of the amendment were not clear. Another amendment changed funding related to Cleveland’s separate private-school voucher program.
The bill goes to the Ohio House today, Wednesday. It is not clear whether the House will accept the Senate’s language or make more changes, requiring the two chambers to reconcile the differences.
The Senate Higher Education Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would prevent a dramatic increase in the number of public schools where students are eligible for taxpayer-funded private school vouchers.
On the other side, the bill would increase EdChoice voucher eligibility for lower-middle and middle-class families based on income, regardless of what school district they live in, raising that threshold from 200% of the federal poverty level to 300%, or $77,250 for a family of four.
But three hours later, at 9:30 p.m., the full Senate had not yet voted, remaining in recess while lawmakers discussed the legislation. Sens. Peggy Lehner and Matt Huffman both said at that point that the Senate still intended to vote later Tuesday night.
All of the bill’s changes are still pending approval Wednesday from the Ohio House, where Speaker Larry Householder said his members hope to address some other provisions of the EdChoice school voucher law.
The Senate provision, which would take effect for the 2020-21 school year and last through 2022-23 if passed, would have a dramatic impact in the Dayton area.
Eighteen local districts currently scheduled to have schools on the voucher eligibility list would have none on the list if the Senate language becomes law — Miamisburg, Northmont, Centerville, Vandalia, New Lebanon, Beavercreek, Cedar Cliff, Fairborn, Greeneview, Yellow Springs, Lebanon, Carlisle, Troy, Tipp City, Milton-Union, Covington, Bradford and Newton.
Other districts would see a major reduction in voucher-eligible schools. Mad River, Xenia and Piqua would go from a combined 13 schools on the list to only the high school in each district. Franklin would go from five schools to only Pennyroyal Elementary.
The Senate language would exempt schools from the voucher eligibility list if they got an overall grade of A, B or C on latest state report card. They would also exempt a D-rated school if its performance index on state tests has not been in the lowest 20% of the state for two of the last three years.
The changes also address a complex high school provision that upset public school officials, and that voucher advocate Sen. Matt Huffman was an unintended consequence of previous legislation.
Students who complete eighth grade and would otherwise be assigned to an “under-performing” public high school are eligible for a first-time EdChoice scholarship without actually having to attend that school. A provision in last summer’s state budget bill would have given that option to high school students in any grade, rather than just incoming ninth-graders.
The new bill also appropriates $20 million in 2020-21 to reimburse school districts for state funding losses caused by those high school departures.
Democrats on the Senate Higher Education Committee proposed several amendments to the bill — rolling the language back to the pre-2019 version, using only the past two years’ state report cards to set school eligibility and switching to solely an income-based approach. All of those proposals were tabled by the Republican majority.
“Lawmakers need to say no to tying a permanent (voucher) expansion to a temporary “fix” to EdChoice,” said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “Too much is at stake for the 90% of Ohio’s children who attend our public schools.
The Ohio House is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and Householder said there are still differences between the House and Senate approaches to the bill.
On Tuesday, Householder pushed for removal of the K-3 Literacy measure as a trigger for voucher eligibility, and called for a joint House-Senate committee to more deeply investigate the voucher program before the next state budget cycle.
Ohio has had the EdChoice voucher system for years, giving students tuition assistance to attend private schools if either their home public school was labeled “underperforming,” or if their family income was less than 200% of the federal poverty level.
But changes in program definitions, report card metrics and the end of a “safe harbor” period have caused the list of schools deemed “underperforming” to balloon although performance is little-changed in many cases. The list now includes some schools that score quite high on most report card metrics.
Without a change, the list of “underperforming” schools where students would have been eligible for vouchers would have grown from 526 this year to more than 1,250 next year, according to the Ohio Department of Education, and would have included schools in Beavercreek, Centerville, Tipp City and other solid-scoring districts for the first time.
The legislature is rushing the change because applications for 2020-21 vouchers go live Saturday.
** Another amendment to Tuesday’s bill, somewhat unrelated to the voucher language, would tweak eligibility for Ohio’s Academic Distress Commission system that governing the very lowest-scoring schools.