COVID-19 school closures disrupted learning and slowed academic progress for students across Ohio. Early studies already warn that many students could be up to a full academic year behind where they otherwise would be without the interruption, and the lost year has the potential to dramatically lower lifetime earnings. But the crisis could have been worse.
Fortunately, the Ohio General Assembly recently took several bold legislative steps to limit the damage.
Last month, for example, the Ohio Senate fixed fundamental inequities in current school choice programs and cut bureaucratic red tape on a new program focused on helping close learning gaps. Under the leadership of President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, the Senate corrected a long-standing problem with Ed Choice scholarships, Ohio’s income-based voucher program.
Previously, lower-income students could see prorated losses of their vouchers if their parents scraped together a few extra dollars and their family’s income inched above 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines — and their siblings would be ineligible for their own income-based vouchers altogether. The Senate’s recent legislative effort ended these misguided policies by eliminating any voucher prorating and clarifying that sibling students would be mostly voucher-eligible even if the family income modestly increased.
In fixing these problems, the Senate also ensured that thousands of eligible Ohio students retained access to the new The Buckeye Institute-inspired Afterschool Child Enrichment Program. Without a change in law, the Ohio Department of Education would have reclaimed any Ohio ACE money credited to a new account for the 2021 school year but not spent by the end of June 2022. The Senate spearheaded the effort to keep that money available until eligible students graduate high school.
Making these corrections earned the Ohio Senate strong marks on its report card before the summer break. But more work awaits the General Assembly when it returns this fall.
The legislature should raise Ohio ACE eligibility from 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines to 400 percent and hike the amount put into family accounts from $500 to $1,000. The first increase will make more students eligible for the program, and the second will help families afford additional learning services and educational resources. And then state leaders should slash even more administrative red tape that needlessly slows and complicates the ACE application process.
Additionally, the General Assembly should take a #StudentsFirst approach to education reform and convert Ed Choice scholarships into broader-based education savings accounts. Such accounts would maximize flexibility and allow families to fill the COVID-19 learning gaps with the education services their children need.
Finally, Ohio should raise the current $750 dollar-for-dollar tax credit for scholarship-granting organizations up to $2,500. This will further incentivize private philanthropic groups trying to help low-income students access more educational options and opportunities.
President Huffman and the Ohio Senate helped keep a bad situation from worsening. And for that, Ohio families should be grateful. But more education reforms will be needed to help students recoup some of their learning losses and recover from the great COVID disruption. The Senate, it seems, is up to the challenge.
Greg R. Lawson is a research fellow at The Buckeye Institute. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.