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Janresseger: Ohio House Passes Emergency Amendment Which Would Solve Some EdChoice Voucher Problems

Ohio’s House Speaker Larry Householder is leading his chamber expeditiously to address the crisis over school vouchers which emerged last weekend, when negotiations between the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House entirely broke down over the state’s EdChoice voucher program. The Ohio House passed an emergency amendment to Senate Bill 89 on Wednesday afternoon to redesign the EdChoice program. The new House amendment will be sent back to the Ohio Senate for consideration next week.

Speaker Householder has expressed growing concern about injustice, not only in the state’s EdChoice Voucher program, but also in the mass of punitive school turnaround policies Ohio has been imposing on its poorest school districts. Given decades of research correlating standardized test scores with the aggregate income of families and neighborhoods, Householder seems to recognize that state must grapple with the underlying causes—poverty and the urgent need for equitable school funding reform. He is pushing the state to support rather than punish its poorest school districts.

The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock describes Householder’s comments earlier this week at a Columbus, Ohio Associated Press event: “‘It’s become a class problem,’ Householder said. ‘And I don’t mean classroom. I mean a class problem.’  For years, low-performing schools were in Appalachia or urban areas where most of the kids were African American, Householder said. People didn’t seem to care that public schools were deemed failing and losing money when the students enrolled in private schools, he said. This year, 700 new schools—up from the current 500—are considered failing, many of them from wealthier, white areas. ‘When all of a sudden there were 1,203 schools on the list and some of them are from the wealthiest suburbs in the state of Ohio, suddenly alarms went off and now we’ve got to fix this,’ he said.  ‘That’s a class problem.'”

Householder is pushing against a state senate, however, whose members are currently being actively lobbied by Betsy DeVos, who is said to be calling in favors. When the amended Senate Bill 89 goes back for consideration in the Ohio Senate next week, agreement with the House’s new amendment is not to be taken for granted. On Wednesday afternoon, Hancock quoted State Senator Matt Huffman recommending that the Ohio Senate not concur with the House’s newest amendment.

It appears this battle will not be resolved quickly.  Householder is a Beowulf on a quest to protect our public schools from Grendel—the monster of test-and-punish, state takeover and underfunding. A long and ugly battle is to be expected.

Background

A debate over one of Ohio’s four statewide voucher plans—EdChoice Vouchers—collapsed into rancor and chaos last week with House and Senate battling back and forth and unable to move forward. Last Friday, the Legislature finally agreed to a 60 delay, during which the Legislature would grapple with problems in the program, before allowing families to sign up for EdChoice vouchers for next year.

On Monday, this blog covered last week’s ugly debacle in the Ohio Legislature over explosive growth during this school year of EdChoice, due to changes made in the program during the budget conference committee last summer. The number of public schools where students are eligible to claim EdChoice vouchers increased during this 2019-2020 school year to 517, from 255 in the 2018-2019 school year. And the budget bill established that the number of qualifying schools is now scheduled to grow to more than 1,200 public schools in the 2020-2021 school year.

Here are two of the most serious problems which need to be addressed in Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers:

First: Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers are currently “performance-based,”meaning that they are available to students who live in the attendance zone of a “Designated EdChoice Public School.” A public schools is designated for EdChoice if the state’s report card awards the school a grade of “D” or “F”—a term that denotes a “failing” school—for two years running in any one of six report card categories: Achievement, Progress, Gap Closing, Graduation Rate, Improving At-Risk K-3 Readers and Prepared for Success.  The algorithms which determine the grades are not public, and there is consensus across the state and even in the Legislature that the report card system is seriously flawed.

Second:  Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers are funded through a public school district deduction. EdChoice counts the voucher student as enrolled in the local public school and then extracts $4,650 for each elementary school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher right out of the local public school district’s budget. But a serious problem arises because in Ohio, state funding is allocated at different rates from school district to school district, and in many cases the vouchers extract more dollars per pupil from the local school budget than the state awards to that district in per pupil state aid.  Added to this: Until this year, to qualify for a voucher, an Ohio student must have been enrolled in the public school in the year previous to applying for the voucher. But surreptitiously inserted into the state budget last summer was an amendment providing that high school students may now receive a voucher even if they have never been enrolled in a public school. These provisions added together have burdened many Ohio school districts with more dollars lost to to EdChoice vouchers than the per-pupil amount they receive from the state.  Much of the money is flowing away from local school districts to students who have always been enrolled in private and religious schools and never attended a public school in the district from which the EdChoice dollars are flowing.

What Does the Emergency Amendment, Passed by the Ohio House on Wednesday, accomplish?

The House amendment passed on Wednesday ends the performance-based EdChoice vouchers and moves all students accepting a new voucher to a new program—Buckeye Opportunity Scholarships—an income based voucher program with students qualifying at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

The House amendment does not fully end the school district deduction funding for the vouchers. First time voucher applicants who qualify for the new Buckeye Opportunity Scholarships will receive income-based vouchers fully funded by the state.  Students who currently have an EdChoice voucher (and their siblings) will keep the voucher, paid for by the school district deduction until they graduate from high school. However, if the family’s income falls at or under 250 percent of the federal poverty level, these students will be transferred (beginning in the 2021-2022 school year) to the new program paid for at full state expense.  On Wednesday afternoon, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock explained: “The House plan also will try to get as many kids off of performance-based vouchers as possible by checking family incomes to see if they qualify for income-based vouchers and moving them over to that system… (This) will make a difference for local school districts. Performance-based vouchers are paid for by local school districts in the form of a deduction….”  The House’s failure fully to eliminate the school district deduction, which school districts fear will continue to drain millions of dollars annually out of their local budgets for vouchers, remains a cause for alarm.

The amendment the House sent back to the Senate on Wednesday night would also establish a formal Educational Assssment Study Committee to review serious problems with the uses of statewide standardized testing and with the state school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts based primarily on the standardized tests. The committee would be expected to report out by October 1, 2020.

Important Reforms Omitted from the Proposed House Amendment

Public school officials and public school advocates had hoped the House would address several additional problems with the current EdChoice program—issues that the House chose not to address in its proposed EdChoice overhaul:

First:  The House amendment ignores the need for hold-harmless funding for school districts with unexpected and sudden costs during the current 2019-2020 school year from last summer’s expansion of EdChoice. School districts hit hard during this school year by the last summer’s expansion of the EdChoice program had hoped for passage of $30 million (to be distributed across affected school districts) to cushion the unexpected collapse of their local school district budgets during the current school year. Such hold-harmless funding was discussed by legislators in both chambers last week. And the Cleveland Municipal School District had expected similar relief for explosive voucher growth this year through the school district deduction.  The House amendment does not provide this hold-harmless funding.  (A more modest $10 million to help some school districts damaged in the current school year was passed last week in a separate bill.)

Second:  The House amendment does not require that to qualify for a voucher, students must have been previously enrolled in a public school before they are granted tax dollars to escape that public school—the very purpose for which the Legislature said it created the program. Today, the vouchers are being awarded to students who have always attended private and religious schools.

House Passes A Second Very Positive Amendment to Senate Bill 89

On Wednesday, the Ohio House passed another very welcome emergency amendment to Senate Bill 89: to end Ohio’s state school district takeovers established without adequate public hearings in the summer of 2015. The House amendment would end the state takeovers and the top-down, appointed Academic Distress Commissions in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland. Elected representatives from Lorain and Youngstown spoke passionately for the need to restore local control and community engagement in their school districts, which were thrust into chaos in recent years by their Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed CEOs.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...