Changes coming to school funding, testing, vouchers, who can teach

Ohio schools will get a state funding increase the next two years, but it will mainly come in the form of targeted student wellness funding and will vary significantly from district to district.

The state budget approved by the legislature last week includes $675 million for “student wellness and success funding.” The money is aimed at tackling health, drug, social service and other non-academic student issues that many believe hinder student learning.

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School districts with higher levels of poverty will receive larger shares. This year, it will range from $20 per student in the highest-income districts to $250 per student in the lowest-income districts, according to Ohio’s Legislative Service Commission. In the second year, the funding range will increase to $30-$360 per student, again based on family income averages.

Some schools will average a total of only $30,000 a year. But for a large, high-poverty district like Dayton, it could mean close to $7 million over two years.

“Our investment in student wellness will make a significant difference in the lives of children across Ohio,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Peggy Lehner, who discussed the state’s plan at a recent national conference. “I believe this unprecedented initiative is unmatched throughout the country.”

Meanwhile, base state funding for most school districts will stay flat, meaning higher-income areas will see little overall change in state funding from last year. Some higher-growth districts whose funding had been capped will get a moderate increase.

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Another set of wealthy districts, which get less than the $1,305 per student that private schools receive, were also set for an increase. But Gov. Mike DeWine vetoed that item, calling it "not a responsible use" of state funding, given the districts' wealth.

Groups ranging from teachers unions, the Ohio School Boards Association and the Ohio Department of Education praised the overall increase in school funding. On the floor of the Ohio House, Jamie Callender called it “a record year, followed by a record year” in school funding.

“I don’t want it to get lost — that focus the governor brought with a substantial investment in student wellness and wraparound services,” State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said. “It’s a great investment and so important to help students succeed.”

Private-school vouchers

The budget bill includes a $50 million expansion of state-paid, private-school vouchers for families below 200% of the federal poverty line, no matter where their home school is, beginning in 2020-21.

Eligibility for these EdChoice Expansion vouchers had been advancing one year at a time, and was up to sixth grade. But the budget bill immediately makes all low-income, K-12 students eligible. It also gives families more time to apply and allows the program a path to grow.

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The voucher pays up to $4,650 for kindergarten through eighth grades — enough for full tuition in some schools. It pays $6,000 for high school, which is thousands less than local Catholic school tuition.

Several school choice groups praised the move, with Kevin Bacon of School Choice Ohio saying it gives families “more education options for their children.”

Traditional public school backers continued their argument that the state shouldn’t pay to move students who have a solid public school option. “Ohio already has no shortage of vouchers to pay private school tuition on the taxpayer’s dime,” Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro said.

Teacher licensing

The budget bill had eliminated the requirement that teachers in core subject areas be “properly certified or licensed” to teach in those subject areas and grade levels. DeWine vetoed that language as it applied to traditional school districts and STEM schools, but let it stand for charter schools.

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That means charter schools go back to the rules they had before a recent change. Charter advocates say it helps them hire mid-career people who could be strong teachers, but do not meet Ohio’s credential requirement.

Teacher unions had opposed that change in district schools, with DiMauro saying licensure requirements ensure students are served by “highly prepared educators.”

Other school law changes in the budget

• Testing: The budget eliminates the high school English I end-of-course exam. It requires ODE to seek a federal waiver to make algebra I the primary high school math assessment, so the state can also eliminate the geometry end-of-course exam.

Charter money: Charter schools that reach certain quality benchmarks will receive $1,750 per economically disadvantaged student and $1,000 per other student.

School busing: The budget includes $20 million "to assist school districts in purchasing school buses." It also prohibits a school district from reducing busing levels during the middle of a school year. Some districts have done this when a November school levy fails.

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Breakfast: In a three-year phase-in, higher-poverty public schools will have to offer breakfast to all enrolled students. School breakfast costs are federally reimbursed. By the third year, it will apply to any public school where at least 50% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Progress grades: The bill changes the scale for schools' progress grades on the state report card, likely resulting in higher grades for some districts, according to the Legislative Service Commission. Since progress grades factor into districts' overall grades, this could affect whether schools are subject to state oversight.

Career credentials: The budget provides $25 million to help schools increase the number of students earning industry credentials or journeyman certification. The state will pay public schools $1,250 for each qualifying credential earned by a student and offer funding to create more programs.

JEOC: The budget ends funding for the Joint Education Oversight Committee, a small body that gave the legislature non-partisan analysis on education policy issues.

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Studies: The budget requires the Ohio Department of Education to form groups to study many things — most prominently a deep dive into the state report card, due in less than five months.

Other studies the budget calls for are: funding of online schools (by end of 2019), dropout prevention and recovery schools (end of 2019), Ohio’s early child initiatives compared to those of other states (end of 2020) and the definition of “economically disadvantaged students” as it applies to school funding formulas (end of 2020).

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