COLUMBUS, Ohio — State Senator Matt Huffman is hoping to avoid chaos as parents are a day away from applying for vouchers that may or may not be there.
“The clock is running out,” Huffman said as open enrollment in EdChoice begins Saturday, and families need to know whether they will qualify for scholarships.
Ohio lawmakers continued to argue Thursday over how to prevent the massive expansion of “underperforming” public schools that would have to pay to send thousands of students to private schools.
Huffman said “we are waiting on the House,” which now wants to scrap the performance-based vouchers altogether and replace it with a poverty-based program funded entirely through the state budget.
State lawmakers have talked to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, an advocate of school choice, as they’ve been negotiating how to change Ohio’s private school voucher program, according to sources with information on the matter.
The Senate-passed plan would take a more surgical approach to halt a more than doubling of school buildings subject to the EdChoice Scholarship Program because of their performance on state report cards while making more families eligible for state-financed scholarships based on income.
A six-member, Republican-majority conference committee has struggled to negotiate a compromise that could garner the two-thirds votes in both chambers needed to have the law take effect before the start of Saturday’s application period.
School officials and many lawmakers have argued that the report card system is flawed and, thanks to changes made in the current two-year budget, is flagging too many schools that are not truly struggling. For the first time, many wealthier suburban school buildings are showing up on the list despite their districts as a whole performing well academically.
Senate Republican spokesman John Fortney said, “We remain confident that common ground can be found through the conference committee talks that both clarifies and advances the mission of the Ed Choice program.”
Barring legislative intervention, 1,227 individual school buildings that have been flagged as failing or academically struggling would be included in the program for classes this fall. That would be more than twice the current 517 in the program.
The school districts would have to pay $4,650 for each K-8 student and $6,000 for each high-school student whose parents opt to send their children to private or religious schools instead.
The Senate plan would reduce the number of affected schools to 420 by exempting all those graded a C or better as well as some that have earned D’s. At the same time, it would increase the number of families that would be eligible for separate income-based vouchers that are funded by the state.
Those earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, about $78,000 a year for a family of four, could qualify compared to 200 percent, or about $52,000, currently. Those earning up to 400 percent could get partial scholarships.
“We are encouraged by the conversations that are coming forward today that rein in the explosion of vouchers,” House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D., Akron) said. “However, this is merely a Band-Aid. Long-term fixes will need to include tackling fair funding of public schools and reforming or eliminating the broken report card system.”