Ohio lawmakers push voucher expansion

Republican amendments offered Tuesday include revising eligibility for the voucher program proposed earlier this year by Gov. John Kasich. The program would allow up to 2,000 kindergartners next year to attend private schools if their families earn 200 percent below the federal poverty level, about $46,000 for a family of four. The program would add first-graders in the second year, with the potential to grow further in future budgets.

In the latest Senate GOP plan, families who earn more than 200 percent after the first year would be able to keep their scholarships, but in a lesser amount depending on income instead of the full amount as proposed by Kasich. Families earning between 300 and 400 percent above federal poverty, about $94,000 for a family of four, would receive 50 percent of the $4,250 voucher amount while families between 200 and 300 percent would receive 75 percent.

“The goal of the program is to provide the bulk of the money to those with the greatest need, and this does that,” said Senate Finance Chairman Sen. Scott Oelslager, R-Canton.

Hamilton City School District Treasurer Robert Hancock asked lawmakers to scrap the voucher program, which he said will take money from public schools at a disadvantage to the students who stay. Hancock said 80 percent of students in his district would qualify for the scholarship under the original eligibility level.

“You cannot simply look at the impact that this proposal will have over the next two years,” Hancock said. “You must assess it by the collective impact that it will have when fully implemented 13 years from now.”

The amendments made Tuesday include the per-pupil based school funding formula unveiled last week funneling $13.7 billion over two years to school districts — $717 million more than the current budget. Of that, the Senate plan dictates that $345.9 million allocated for economically disadvantaged student be spent in at least one of six areas such as extending the school year or dropout prevention programs.

School districts and charter schools will have to submit a report detailing how the money was spent to the Ohio Department of Education. Oelslager said the requirement was added to ensure schools spend that money as earmarked.

Besides the education changes, lawmakers will have to decide whether they want to cut personal income tax rates by 7 percent for all Ohioans as proposed by the House or cut taxes by 50 percent for small business partners and pass-through entities, which cost $1.5 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively. Kasich included both cuts in his plan, which was paid for by applying the sales tax to more services and raising taxes on oil and gas extracted from Ohio soil.

Lawmakers eliminated Kasich’s new revenue sources but haven’t said modifying either is completely off the table.

The Senate kept a provision that would place Planned Parenthood and other family-planning only clinics at the end of line to receive federal family planning money. The money is currently awarded through a competitive grant process and cannot be used for aboriton services. The proposed system, added by the House, would fund public health districts and community health centers first.

Jaime Miracle, policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told lawmakers Tuesday that “defunding Planned Parenthood” limits access to family planning services and goes against their goals of reducing abortions in Ohio. Miracle noted that none of the proponents of the change were from public health centers that would be at the top of the chain.

The GOP-sponsored amendments will likely be accepted by the Senate Finance Committee today after hearing more testimony. The budget bill is planned for a full Senate vote Thursday.

Members from both chambers will then hash out the differences in the bill before approving the budget and sending it to Kasich to sign before June 30.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said changes in voucher eligibility would apply to new recipients. The changes would only apply to students already attending school through the program.

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