COLUMBUS, Ohio — The impending explosion in voucher use across Ohio that has school districts panicked won’t likely hit until April, after the state Senate passed a 60-day delay Friday on when families can start applying for next school year.
The Senate agreed 23-6 with a plan passed Thursday night by the House to have applications for tax-funded tuition aid to private schools start April 1 instead of today, Feb. 1.
The delay leaves many in limbo.
Districts that need student counts to plan for the fall will be forced to wait or guess. Families that want to use a voucher and private schools that rely on vouchers in their budgets also must wait. Families who need to re-apply for EdChoice scholarships they were awarded years ago are also being put on hold, which is an unattended consequence.
Many Senators blasted the House for not continuing to negotiate a solution Friday. Some even wanted Gov. Mike DeWine to order the House back in session.
“We’re here today,” said State Sen. Matt Huffman, referring to the Senate’s Friday session. “Right now. Because we’re paid to be here right now. Today. I’d like to solve it by 11:59 today.”
Some Senators said they believe the delay might not survive a challenge, if families or schools contest it.
Sen. Rob McColley, a Napoleon Republican, said the law is not an emergency measure and would not take effect for 90 days. Though House Speaker Larry Householder said the law includes an appropriation so it can take effect immediately, McColley said there are technical problems that undermine Householder’s claims.
“Now we are in somewhat of a gray area,” said McColley.
Huffman also challenged House officials who say the law is immediate.
“They are wrong,” said Huffman, who said families may apply, win a challenge and that districts will then face voucher bills.
“The way this is drafted, it doesn’t make any difference how you vote because it’s going to end up the same way anyway,” he said.
Should people apply Monday, unaware of the last-minute delay, no one knows for sure what will transpire.
“An argument could be made that they’re entitled to receive it. In my opinion, we have something that’s unenforcible,” said Huffman.
State Sen. Matt Dolan, a Chagrin Falls Republican, said he believes the Senate plan passed Tuesday gave clarity to parents and schools, while also acknowledging that several major issues with schools, including the state report cards that rate them, need work.
“Unfortunately the House refused to hear our plan, and worse, failed to present a viable or timely alternative,” Dolan said. “Now we find ourselves voting for another delay that continues the chaos for Ohio’s families and schools.”
Sen. Sandra Williams, a Cleveland Democrat, chastised legislators for ignoring problems with vouchers while they affected urban areas, but care now that voucher eligibility would be widespread.
“It’s a shame this body didn’t find it important until these vouchers started showing up in outer ring suburbs and rural areas,” she said.
The EdChoice scholarships (often referred to as vouchers) were started in 2005 to give students attending struggling schools money to go to private schools instead.
In the last two years, tougher state report cards and some disputed state laws have led to more public schools considered failing by the state, which then makes their students eligible for vouchers. After the state declared 255 schools as underperforming for the 2018-‘19 school year, 517 fell into that category for this ongoing school year.
Next fall, more than 1,200 schools would be declared failing, making all of their students eligible for vouchers.
Because districts have to pay a large part of the $4,650 vouchers for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and $6,000 for high school students, districts complained that increased eligibility is creating strains on their budgets.
All week, legislators have sparred over which grades on state report cards should trigger a school’s students being eligible for vouchers. Though the Senate passed a plan just before midnight Tuesday that would cut the number of public schools affected down to 425, the House rejected it. Householder first wanted that number cut to 188, then announced Wednesday night that he wanted to wipe out the use of report cards grades to determine eligibility.
The Lima News contributed to this report.