COLUMBUS — After nearly a year of delays, the Ohio House of Representatives on Thursday sent Gov. Mike DeWine what it hopes is a long-elusive fix to the state’s school voucher program that earlier this year threatened to draw in two-thirds of all Ohio school districts.
The revision bill passed 51-36 with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. It will still affect 469 individual school buildings, down from 517 currently, where students could choose to attend a private or religious school at their local school district’s expense.
Before lawmakers froze the voucher program in place last spring, the number of affected schools would have skyrocketed to 1,227 because of changes made in Ohio’s testing program that made more schools look like they were “under-performing.”
“It’s not perfect. I will admit that,” said state Rep. Don Jones (R., Freeport), a “yes” vote and chairman of the House Education Committee. “But, ladies and gentlemen, we must make a decision today whether we want 1,227 school buildings on this list or do we want 469.”
Nearly all of the buildings in Toledo Public Schools will be affected along with one Washington Local building, Wernert Elementary School. Without these changes, most of the rest of Washington Local would have been pulled into the program.
The only other affected buildings in northwest Ohio are located in the cities of Sandusky, Fostoria and Lima. Most of the suburban schools in Republican lawmakers’ districts that would have been included without the changes are no longer affected.
“The qualifying school building list will include schools never before on the list,” said state Rep. Phil Robinson (D., Solon), ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee and a “no” vote.
“Some have schools that have A, B, or C grades [on state report cards] still on there, 122 schools to be exact, or 26 percent,” he said.
Senate Bill 89, sponsored by state Sen. Matt Huffman (R., Lima), heads to the governor’s desk as the application window for the EdChoice scholarships reopens early next year. The bill passed the GOP-controlled Senate 24-8 on Wednesday, also along party lines.
Under the bill:
• Students would be eligible for the performance-based vouchers if at least 20 percent of their home district has been deemed to be low income by the federal government for three consecutive years and the building performed in the lowest 20 percent of all schools statewide during both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. Testing was waived during the current coronavirus-ravaged school year.
• Students would be eligible for the separate income-based voucher scholarship if family income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level. That would translate to about $65,500 for a family of four. That’s up from 200 percent under current law.
Under the performance-based program, the state subtracts each eligible student’s scholarship amount from the district’s basic education aid. The income-based program, however, is funded entirely by the state.
“This is once again an example of discrimination,” Washington Local Superintendent Kadee Anstadt said. “There’s no need for this. All you need to do is step across the hall to the finance room for [the proposed] fair school funding [bill]. That solves everything.
“Those voucher schools can still say no to kids,” she said. “That’s the inherently discriminatory part of vouchers to begin with.”
Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp (R., Lima) said this week he still hopes to see a vote on a new plan for funding primary and secondary schools in general before lawmakers close the two-year legislative session next month.
The voucher bill still skirts the debate over what to do about Ohio’s testing system, placed on hold during the coronavirus emergency but still on the books. Critics argue that flaws in the system flag schools that are not truly under-performing.
Chad Aldis, vice president of Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, praised the changes.
“In the long term, these changes will be very positive for Ohio families and schools,” he said. “These last eight months have reminded us that education isn’t one-size-fits-all. Families need options. The EdChoice program is well positioned going forward to provide opportunities to many more Ohio students — especially the most disadvantaged — to find a school that works for them.”