COLUMBUS, Ohio-The Ohio House of Representatives will not be holding any voting sessions or committee hearings until further notice because of fears of spreading coronavirus, according to a staff memo issued by House Speaker Larry Householder on Friday.
The directive raises questions about whether lawmakers can meet an April 1 deadline to agree on a deal about the future of Ohio’s private-school voucher program.
In his memo, Householder, a Perry County Republican, directed all House employees to work from home starting Monday through at least April 3. “I do this out of an abundance of caution for the health and well-being of the staff and the public,” the speaker stated.
Earlier in the day, the Ohio Senate also directed staffers to work remotely through early April, though their two upcoming session days on March 25 and March 31 have not been canceled.
Ohio legislators have been arguing and negotiating for months on what to do about the state’s EdChoice voucher program, which offers private-school vouchers to K-12 students in school districts that fail state performance ratings.
The original deadline to address the issue was Jan. 31, but lawmakers voted to extend that deadline to April 1.
A legislative conference has been working to hammer out a deal between the House and Senate plans to overhaul the program. The House version would define eligibility based on income, not school districts’ performance, while the Senate’s plan would include a combination of both performance-based vouchers and income-based vouchers.
If no conference committee deal can be reached and approved by both chambers by April 1, the number of Ohio public schools where vouchers are available will balloon from about 500 to around 1,200, many of which are in more affluent areas. The jump in eligibility is because an increasing number of schools have failed state performance reviews.
State Sen. Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, said prior to Householder’s announcement that the conference committee can still continue its work. While so far the Ohio Statehouse hasn’t been closed to the public, Huffman said the conference committee negotiations would “probably” be “generally closed to the public,” except for members of the media.
Huffman said Senate members of the conference committee have drafted a new compromise agreement that he hopes will be agreed to by House conferees. Huffman declined to discuss any details of the new proposal.
Huffman said so far, the coronavirus crisis hasn’t hindered negotiations. “Most of the time, conversations happen over the phone,” he said.
A Householder spokeswoman didn’t immediately return a request for comment on whether an EdChoice deal can still be reached by April 1.