Update 11/20 – The Ohio House passed the conference report in their Thursday session with a vote of 51 to 36 vote along partisan lines, with 12 members not voting because of absence.
State Rep. Don Jones presented the report in the House. He said the bill “pivots from solely using a flawed report card measuring system to designate school buildings, to criteria that is poverty based.”
“With these reforms, designation will be more transparent, easy to understand, and most of all, help students and families,” Jones said.
Opposing the bill, state Rep. Phil Robinson, D-Solon, criticized the lack of public comment allowed during the most recent conference committee and unfunded mandates included in the bill.
“As someone who’s gone to both public and private schools, I hate pitting public versus private schools or versus home schools, that’s not what should be happening in this state,” Robinson said. “Instead, we should find a way to support…funding in a way that’s not on the backs of one particular type of school versus another.”
Representatives were heard yelling “call the vote” after Speaker Bob Cupp paused for more than 40 seconds after all names had been called. Following the 40-second pause, he announce three more votes approving the measure.
The conference committee report now moves on to the Governor for signature.
After months of public silence, the EdChoice private school voucher program reappeared at Wednesday’s Ohio Senate session, which approved a joint conference committee’s report whittling down the eligible schools, but in a way, expanding the program.
State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, brought back Senate Bill 89, completely changed from its last appearance in the chamber, when it mainly focused on career centers.
Now, the bill allows career centers to obtain Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) designations and can allow substitutes to perform outside of their designated area with the authorization of the superintendent.
But the part of the bill most significantly discussed in Wednesday’s session was the changes it makes to the private school voucher program, a program harshly criticized by public school leaders for taking away funding and resources from their schools, but supported by those that want to send their children to private schools.
The EdChoice debate reignited at the beginning of the year, in a rush to come to an agreement before an application deadline for the program passed.
The list of public schools for which EdChoice vouchers would have ballooned to about 1,200 schools without action from the legislature, based on the performance evaluations (state report cards) with which the state determines a school’s success.
“If we do nothing, either we’re going to go to 1,229, or if we do something later we’re going to put families in the same box they’re in,” Huffman said on Wednesday.
The House produced a version that allowed the direct funding of the program through the state, but the bill died after compromise couldn’t be reached with the Senate.
Senate President Larry Obhof supported Senate Bill 89, while calling the House Bill 9 conference committee “unacceptable.”
“I thought, frankly, the process for that conference committee was one of the most embarrassing things that I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Obhof said.
Though Huffman is now supportive of Senate Bill 89, he spoke out against it initially saying House Bill 9 was a better option. The two governmental bodies couldn’t agree on that bill either, which is why it ended up in the conference committee, from which it emerged on Wednesday.
School administrators, personnel, and students attended hearings on EdChoice during the months of uncertainty, amounting to about 50 hours of testimony.
The amount of eligible schools was frozen at 517 back in March as the COVID-19 pandemic put pressure on the state budget, once again putting off a final solution. With the new bill, the list will be down to 469, according to Huffman.
The conference committee that decided on the plan turned their attention to poverty in districts in order to create a separate part of EdChoice that will raise the income limit from 200% of the federal poverty limit to 250% of the limit to qualify for the expansion.
“Most educators who have been in education a long time, (for them) the most significant indicator of educational success…is poverty,” Huffman said.
Schools in the bottom 20% of the state performance index rankings and schools in a district with 20% or more low-income students are eligible under the new plan.
Obhof said the EdChoice program needed to be dealt with, and it needed to be dealt with urgently.
“If we don’t do it really today, if this isn’t signed and in place by the end of next week, we’re going to create another donut hole for families,” Obhof said.
The opponents kept to concerns they’ve had throughout the EdChoice debate, from the flawed metrics designating schools as under-performing or failing, and the lack of public input on the new plan.
State Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, said the new process “does not reflect the public school advocates and the issues they brought forward.”
“At best, this change is based on arbitrary criteria,” Fedor said on the Senate floor. “If you hear a little anger in my voice, you deserve it.”
Though the program would have less schools on the eligible list, Fedor said some of those schools still received an A, B, or C on the 2018-2019 report card, and some of the schools are completely new to the eligibility list.
“Until we have a fair and accurate system that is accountable to the public…we can not continue to arbitrarily fund these private schools and we can not assume that our ideology here should be ‘any school is better than a public school,'” Fedor said.
State Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, spoke in support of the bill, saying it would be ideal if public schools met the standards that parents wanted for their children, but should have another option if they feel that isn’t the case.
“We need to make sure that those students are given a solid education and yes, I would love to see that those students stay in their original, traditional buildings if they could do that,” Brenner said. “But if they’re not learning…they should be allowed that opportunity.”
The bill passed with 23 affirmative votes, and eight negative votes. The conference committee report must be passed by the House before implementation.