Compromise brokered on education voucher program

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Changes to the private school voucher program are coming after a long day of back and forth over amendments made to address education officials’ concerns about the program.

Negotiations over a private school voucher system went until Tuesday evening, pushing back the state Senate Higher Education Committee hearing to vote on the matter for several hours.

The program, also called the Educational Choice Scholarship program, or EdChoice, provides financial assistance to students from low-income and low-performing school districts to attend private schools, which include religious schools. That financial assistance comes out of public school district coffers.

In the late hours of Tuesday night, the Senate approved House Bill 9 on a vote of 26 to 7. The votes against came from state Sen Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus; Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo; Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta; Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron; Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Avondale; Sen. Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights; and Sen. Tina Maharath, D-Canal Winchester.

The House will take up the bill Wednesday morning. A conference committee is already scheduled to reconcile the changes from each of the chambers following the House session.

The bill the Senate passed came with multiple amendments that leave the program in place, but exempt certain districts from the program and increases the family income eligibility threshold.

State Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, who introduced the amendments, said while the state had good intentions when they brought out the report card metric, issues became apparent as the number of EdChoice schools began to grow. In the 2018-2019 school year, 255 school buildings were eligible based on performance calculated by report cards. In 2019-2020, that number rose to 517.

“And folks, if we didn’t act today, we’d have 1,227 schools across the state…that would be underperforming or failing (according to the metric),” Dolan said on the senate floor.

Dolan said he believes the bill “achieves the goal” the legislature has had, but some on the other side of the aisle disagreed.

Fedor, a former teacher, led the call not to support the voucher program, and instead change the legislature’s priorities when it comes to education.

“If we create a fair system that’s designed to be equitable with our funding for public school districts, we would not have a need for private school vouchers at all,” Fedor said.

The amendments to House Bill 9 were first passed 6 to 3 by the committee earlier in the day.

In the approved amendments, schools with an overall report card grade of A, B, or C on their most recent report card will be exempt.

Another amendment increased the family income eligibility threshold to 300% of the federal poverty level. This part of the bill was mentioned by House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, before the committee met. He said he was hoping for a standard of 200% of the poverty level, but said the state really needed to get to the root of the problem.

“We all know the culprit at the end of the day of all this is our testing system and our grade card in this state,” Householder said. “We need to get busy and fix those things so we don’t have situations where in Ohio, we’ve got great school districts that are seen as failing districts and subject them to these types of situations.”

A third amendment limited the language of the original bill to only allow 8th graders entering eligible EdChoice high schools. In the initial language, the scholarship program would have applied to all high schoolers.

Yet another addition to the bill appropriates $30 million for the year 2019-2020 school year, to reimburse schools that would lose 8th-grade students under the program.

The final approved amendment dissolved academic distress commissions for schools with a grade of D or higher, as of June 2020.

Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland introduced seven amendments of her own to the bill in committee, all of which were tabled. Her measures sought to remove the expanded voucher language from the bill, recalculate school eligibility, cap the loss of funds for high poverty districts at 5%, restore funding for high poverty districts, and revert dollars from the Cleveland scholarship program.

All of the motions were tabled on a 6-3 vote, with Williams, Craig, and Maharath objecting to tabling.

But in Senate session, Williams added her amendment regarding the Cleveland scholarship program, and it was accepted without objection.

Several education officials have spoken out in recent days about the voucher program.

Julie Wagner Feasel, vice president of the Olentangy Schools’ Board of Education, said money lost from EdChoice would significantly burden the rapidly expanding district already in need of more funding.

“Because we get so (few) dollars from the state, losing any money impacts us,” Wagner Feasel said.

The Olentangy district gets about $640 per pupil, according to Wagner Feasel, lower than most other districts, despite being one of the fastest growing districts in the state for years.

Because of their rapidly increasing size, the district is hoping for passage of a 7.4-mill levy and a permanent improvement bond issue in March.

Without the operating and programming levy, Wagner Feasel said the district will be down $16 million. So, the loss of money through EdChoice would be added stress to the district.

The head of the Ohio Federation of Teachers said the program has always been a push to make all children eligible for school vouchers, not something to directly address low-income students’ needs.

“Any solution that doesn’t do something to give money back to these schools who have seen real losses is not a fix,” said Melissa Cropper, OFT’s executive director. “We’re seeing a compromise on this because there are so many people who do recognize that this isn’t a good plan.”

Jake Zuckerman contributed to this article.