School law full of graduation, funding, religion changes approved

The Ohio Statehouse

Ohio legislators passed a wide-ranging education bill this week, affecting graduation rules for current high school students, restoring funding for some suburban schools, protecting religious expression in schools, but removing language that would have allowed schools to furlough staff this year.

Some of those provisions started this week in Senate Bill 319, but they were merged with House Bill 164, which was then approved by the Senate on Tuesday and the House on Thursday. House Bill 164 now goes to Gov. Mike DeWine for his signature.

Test/graduation rules

The bill says high school students whose state end-of-course exams were canceled this spring can use their classroom grades in those subjects toward Ohio’s graduation requirements.

Normally, points earned on those end-of-course exams are a primary pathway to a high-school diploma, but the tests were canceled when Ohio school buildings closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Since the tests are scored on a 1-5 scale, an “A” in the class will equal a “5” on the test, a “B” will equal a “4,” and so on. If a student took one of these courses on a pass-fail basis, it will be up to the school to determine whether each student’s passing grade is worth 3, 4 or 5 points.

This is just the latest change in Ohio’s graduation system, which in the past five years has changed tests twice, launched a new point system and added alternative pathways for students who don’t do well enough on the tests.

School funding

A late amendment to the bill will restore $23 million in funding to school districts mainly in wealthy communities.

This spring, Ohio schools saw two changes to state funding — the state made cuts for May and June because tax revenues were down significantly, then schools got a boost via federal funding from the CARES Act.

Because of the way those two moves were structured, multiple schools in poor communities came out $1 million or more ahead (including Dayton, Trotwood and Northridge), while schools in wealthier communities took a hit (Beavercreek, Centerville and Springboro each lost $1 million-plus in the exchange).

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House Bill 164 ensures that between state cuts, CARES money and “offset payments” in this bill, no school district ends up getting less than 94% of its original state funding amount for 2019-20.

Beavercreek will receive an offset payment of $889,000, Centerville $741,000, Springboro $246,000 and Bellbrook $143,000.

“The increase in school funding today will provide suburban school districts with needed funding to restore much of the unfair cuts they were given during the pandemic,” said state Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg. “We must prioritize the education of our students despite the crisis we are in.”

Religious expression

The bill requires public schools to allow students “to meet for the purpose of religious expression” in the same way they allow secular student groups to meet, according to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission.

RELATED: Earlier version of school religion bill sparked hot debate

House Bill 164 also changes current law that allows a school to limit the exercise of religion to lunch periods or other non instructional time. A specific provision permits students to incorporate religious expression into writing assignments or artwork.

Other provisions

** Third-grade reading: The bill prohibits schools from retaining students in third grade next year based on their scores on the fall state reading test. It also freezes the "promotion score" students are required to achieve on the third-grade reading test in 2020-21, rather than calling for the usual slight increase. Public schools will not have to establish reading improvement plans given the lack of 2019-20 testing as a baseline.

** Evaluations/ratings: Schools will be prohibited from using student growth data from state tests on 2020-21 teacher or principal evaluations. The bill also prohibits the state from rating charter school sponsors for the 2019-20 school year, and gives those sponsors safe harbor from any related consequences.

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** Special education: Therapists and other non classroom personnel will be allowed to provide services to students with disabilities electronically or via "telehealth communication" for the 20-21 school year.

** Furloughs: A provision allowing schools to furlough teachers and other staff was removed from the bill. The Ohio School Boards Association had said the language gave schools needed flexibility, while the Ohio Education Association, which represents teachers, called it an "overreach," saying the issue is already addressed in existing law.

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