Ohio House plan a better option for the future of vouchers

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Less than a month before deadline, Ohio’s school voucher stalemate seems to be ongoing, with no evidence that either side will budge.

The legislature has until April 1 to agree on a plan for the private school voucher program, after it pushed back the EdChoice application deadline date from Feb. 1. 

In our reporting today, Senate President Larry Obhof remarks he hadn’t heard of any “olive branch” to reach an agreement between the House and Senate.

On one hand we have the House’s overhaul of the EdChoice voucher program, which is a part of Senate Bill 89. That bill has yet to see any action since the beginning of February.

It would eliminate EdChoice vouchers in the 2021 school year, and replace them with a new scholarship fund, paid for by the state.

The Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship would be based on a household’s financial situation, rather than the performance of the schools, as in the EdChoice voucher system.

With the bill, anyone within two-and-a-half times the federal poverty level would be eligible for a full scholarship. Those already a part of the EdChoice system would be allowed to keep their scholarships and continue under the Buckeye Opportunity program.

The House’s overhaul of EdChoice also institutes studies by the Ohio Department of Education regarding economically disadvantaged students and a study of special education programs around the state.

On the other hand we have House Bill 9, as passed by the Senate, which came with multiple amendments that leave the program in place, but exempt certain districts from the program and increase the family income eligibility threshold.

Under the Senate’s 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.

Those looking to do away with Ohio’s EdChoice program argue the concept of “failing schools” is a product of a failing ranking system and state funding model, and that districts with set costs and limited resources bear the burden of sending this funding to private schools.

Supporters of EdChoice argue these private schools afford them better opportunities than their local public schools, and the administrators of the private schools warn of the risk of closure if the voucher program goes away.

One can have a sympathetic ear to those students who tell stories of finding a better environment for themselves at a private school and want to afford them those opportunities, and one can understand the economic worries of a private institution reliant on public money if that money were to go away.

Our obligation in our own self-government, however, is to the institution of public education enshrined in the Ohio Constitution to provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools, not to private institutions.

Ohio’s school funding model was first declared unconstitutional more than 22 years ago, in 1997.

Ohio’s report cards system and its branding of economically struggling districts as “failing,” combined with the EdChoice program’s holding those districts liable for the cost of students taking vouchers, is a sorry situation created by lawmakers’ unwillingness to address the root of the Ohio public education problem for decades: inequitable funding.

The biggest achievement gap in American education is directly tied to poverty. 

We have ample empirical evidence to prove that the way to address the poverty achievement gap is through best practices: early childhood education; a well-rounded school experience including culture, sports, and the arts; extra-curricular activities that give students a sense of purpose; community-minded and community-building schools; cooperative learning.

But initiatives like these are the very things money-strapped districts are forced to cut first as funding becomes tight, exacerbated by things like the EdChoice program.

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder has described the EdChoice voucher system as self-fulfilling prophesy, and he’s right.

“The State Grade Card games high-concentrated poverty districts to fail and be voucher eligible,” Householder wrote in a Twitter post. “Performance Based vouchers only exasperate the problem as local funds are then pulled from those districts to pay for vouchers providing less and less (money).”

Having grown up in and reported on the struggles of school districts with high poverty, I understand the critical importance of every dollar, and the wildly unfair nature of Ohio’s A-F grading system, which I advocate eliminating.

Householder, of Perry County, surely can relate. Obhof, of Medina, I’m not so certain.

In the House-backed bill, Minority Leader Emilia Sykes and House Democrats worked to reduce the number of schools affected, restore local control, put a check on income eligibility and get a deal to have report cards and school funding studied.

In this one battle in the much larger fight for a truly fair and equitable system of public education in Ohio, the House is providing a future for voucher students, relief for financially strapped districts, and a breaking of the chain between an unfair performance ranking system and an unsustainable privatization program. Obhof is offering some tinkering with the status quo.

The House plan is a much better first step.

David C. DeWitt
David C. DeWitt is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience covering Ohio politics and policy. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS and Plunderbund.com covering topics such as education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, government, business, labor, energy, environment and social issues. His work has also appeared in Government Executive, the Columbus Dispatch, Girlfriends magazine, Bleacher Report and the Ashtabula Star Beacon, among others.