House rejects Senate’s private-school voucher bill; program in limbo

The Ohio Senate passed a bill on private-school voucher language around midnight Tuesday, but the Ohio House rejected it Wednesday morning.

House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, issued the following statement after the Ohio House adjourned Wednesday night:

“We have sent our members home for the night and plan to reconvene at 1 p.m. Thursday for our regularly scheduled session. The House has laid out a simple, straight-forward plan that would replace Ohio’s current building performance-based EdChoice voucher with an opportunity scholarship that would be entirely poverty-based. It would allow schools – public and private – to compete more fairly.

“These Opportunity Scholarships would be funded directly and entirely by the state, instead of being deducted from state aid paid to local districts, as is currently the case with the performance-based EdChoice voucher. This approach has a lot less impact on local school districts and puts the focus where it belongs: For a more equal opportunity for all of Ohio’s 1.8 million school kids, regardless of their ZIP Code.”

Now, a conference committee is trying to reach a compromise on the program that they hope would provide opportunity for students, while treating public and private schools fairly and respecting taxpayer funds.

If they don’t reach agreement by Saturday, the application window for 2020-21 vouchers will open under the terms of the existing law. That law would make thousands more students eligible for a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend private school, even if their public school got largely good grades on the state report card.

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“I’ve always been a supporter of opportunities for someone to do better in their life. Also understand, our Constitution says you have to have a thorough and efficient system of schools in the state,” Speaker of the House Larry Householder said. “Our ultimate challenge as legislators is we have to make better and better public schools. We are running a government here. Those are our schools. … Fair competition is what we all seek, and right now we do not have a fair competition in this state.”

Householder said a conference committee was beginning work on a compromise report Wednesday afternoon. He hoped a version would be ready for the House’s consideration Wednesday night, but that was not a sure thing. The Senate’s next scheduled session is today.

Householder said legislators are still “looking at some pretty bold ideas,” and said there are several issues he’s pushing for.

One idea is using the 2019-20 school eligibility list again next year rather than tweaking it as the Senate did. Another is removing the K-3 Literacy measure from the calculation of what makes an under-performing school, which he said could cut the list of voucher-eligible schools from 400-plus to 188. A third is setting up a joint House-Senate committee to study the best way to do private-school vouchers for the long term.

Senate-passed bill

The full Senate approved an amended House Bill 9 just before midnight Tuesday by a 26-7 vote. The bill would prevent a dramatic increase in the number of public schools where students are eligible for taxpayer-funded private school vouchers.

On the other side, the bill would increase EdChoice voucher eligibility for lower-middle and middle-class families based on income, regardless of what school district they live in, raising that threshold from 200% of the federal poverty level to 300%, or $77,250 for a family of four.

JANUARY: School voucher law to change; process worries some

The Senate provision, which would take effect for the 2020-21 school year and last through 2022-23 if passed, would have a dramatic impact in the Dayton area.

Eighteen local districts currently scheduled to have schools on the voucher eligibility list would have none on the list if the Senate language becomes law — Miamisburg, Northmont, Centerville, Vandalia, New Lebanon, Beavercreek, Cedar Cliff, Fairborn, Greeneview, Yellow Springs, Lebanon, Carlisle, Troy, Tipp City, Milton-Union, Covington, Bradford and Newton.

Other districts would see a major reduction in voucher-eligible schools. Mad River, Xenia and Piqua would go from a combined 13 schools on the list to only the high school in each district. Franklin would go from five schools to only Pennyroyal Elementary.

The Senate language would exempt schools from the voucher eligibility list if they got an overall grade of A, B or C on latest state report card. They would also exempt a D-rated school if its performance index on state tests has not been in the lowest 20% of the state for two of the last three years.

But under Ohio law, students who actually received a voucher this school year would remain eligible in future years, even if their public school drops off the list — as long as they take required state tests, aren’t chronically absent, and don’t move out of their designated public school’s attendance area.

DECEMBER: High-scoring public schools now subject to voucher

The changes also address a complex high school provision that upset public school officials, and that voucher advocate Sen. Matt Huffman said was an unintended consequence of previous legislation.

Students who complete eighth grade and would otherwise be assigned to an “under-performing” public high school are eligible for a first-time EdChoice scholarship without actually having to attend that school. A provision in last summer’s state budget bill would have given that option to high school students in any grade, rather than just incoming ninth-graders.

The Senate version of the bill also would appropriate $30 million in 2020-21 to reimburse school districts for state funding losses caused by those high school departures.

Voucher background

Ohio has had the EdChoice voucher system for years, giving students tuition assistance to attend private schools if either their home public school was labeled “under-performing,” or if their family income was less than 200% of the federal poverty level.

But changes in program definitions, report card metrics and the end of a “safe harbor” period have caused the list of schools deemed “under-performing” to balloon although performance is little-changed in many cases. The list now includes some schools that score quite high on most report card metrics.

Without a change, the list of “under-performing” schools where students would have been eligible for vouchers would have grown from 526 this year to more than 1,250 next year, according to the Ohio Department of Education, and would have included schools in Beavercreek, Centerville, Tipp City and other solid-scoring districts for the first time.

The legislature is rushing the change because applications for 2020-21 vouchers go live on Saturday.

Academic Distress

An amendment to Tuesday’s Senate bill, somewhat unrelated to the voucher language, would tweak eligibility for Ohio’s Academic Distress Commission system that governing the very lowest-scoring schools.

That amendment calls for any of Ohio’s three Academic Distress Commissions to be dissolved if the school district in question did not get an overall “F” on the 2018-19 state report card. Youngstown and East Cleveland schools got F’s, but Lorain got a “D” and its distress commission would be dissolved this summer if the bill becomes law.