COVID-19 education rules pass Ohio Senate committee

12 year old girl wearing a reusable, protective face mask in classroom while working on school work at her desk. Photo from Getty Images.

An effort to continue rules and regulations set forth for schools at the beginning of the pandemic passed through an Ohio Senate committee on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 358, was originally written to extend pauses on state testing, state report cards, EdChoice private school voucher eligibility and school administration evaluations for the 2020-2021 school year. Also included are standards that ease the pressure of promoting student to the next grades and more lenient graduation standards.

On Tuesday, the bill was revised to take out provisions now included in House Bill 404, passed last week. The original intent of that bill was to allow state university trustees to attend meetings electronically, but was amended to “continue essential operations of state and local government in response to the declared pandemic and global health emergency related to COVID-19,” according to the bill language.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed HB 404 into law on Nov. 22.

EdChoice eligibility language was also removed from SB 358 because that was dealt with in the passage of Senate Bill 89, which was a months-long fight that began before the pandemic.

SB 89 ended up in conference committee after the House and Senate couldn’t agree, and the bill came out of conference committee recently, passed by the House and Senate.

SB 358 now moves on for a full Senate vote.

The bill was one of several education-related bills that surged through legislative committees today, including the House and Senate companion bills that would overhaul the public school funding system as a whole.

The House version, HB 305, received some revisions today as part of a hearing in the House Finance Committee.

Bill sponsor, state Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, introduced nine amendments to the public school funding overhaul bill, all of which he said would be mirrored in a companion bill being considered in the state Senate.

The Senate bill had a hearing in Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, where the group heard from the funding work group who presented last week to the House committee.

Most of the amendments had to do with transportation within the public school system, from making sure the Ohio Department of Education kept a catalog of aging buses and their mileage to determine the need for new vehicles, to the calculation of statewide transportation costs per pupil.

Others had to do with evaluations of programs like gifted students and English-language learning, and a revision to make evaluations of educational service centers “more uniform and standardized,” according to Patterson.

Community schools have expressed concerns that they could be treated differently than other schools, partially by being treated as a line-item in the budget at risk of veto, rather than a part of the rest of the districts across the state who receive direct state funding under the new funding formula.

“If we’re going to fund community schools directly, then there also must be a protection for them in this bill,” Patterson.

Testimony from teachers unions in the state, along with school officials and charter school advocates testified in the committee, mainly on the nearly $2 billion sticker price authors of the bill say will be needed to fund the formula from year to year.

Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the non-profit Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said he supports large swaths of the bill, but does see reason for concern.

He said there are some parts of the bill didn’t help equalize the funding to cover gaps in marginalized communities. Speaking on charter schools, who he said include mostly students who come from low-income families or students of color, he said a funding increase is progress, but only one step in the right direction.

“Unfortunately, the plan does not narrow funding gaps between Ohio’s urban charters and urban districts,” Aldis told the committee.

He also said even with the six-year phase-in of the funding model, $1.99 billion per year “will be a heavy lift for future General Assemblies.”

The bill’s co-sponsor and vice chair of the committee, state Rep. Gary Scherer, R-Circleville, defended the price tag of the bill, and has said in the past that the number fits with historical education funding numbers in the state.

“It is, frankly in our opinion, doable over the proposed six-year proposed time period to fund the incremental $1.99 billion that this bill calls for,” Scherer said.

He said the Senate and the Legislative Service Commission think the number might be different, though he didn’t say whether they felt it was higher or lower.

“We stand ready to work with them as we need to as we work in both chambers to get this done,” Scherer said.

Finance Committee Chair, state Rep. Scott Oelslager, R-North Canton, noted that Tuesday’s was the ninth hearing on the bill, “and we’ll have another one coming up.”

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