What started as a push by state education officials for targeted reading intervention as part of the new Ohio operating budget became a dissection of private school funding and billions in COVID funding still remaining in education coffers.
The Senate is considering the operating budget for the state now that it has received House revisions and approval. The education budget would appropriate $10.5 billion in fiscal year 2024, and $10.7 billion in FY 2025. 2024’s budget is a decrease of 5.6% from the previous budget, and 2025 sees an additional 10.4% decrease. Statewide, the base cost per pupil would be $8,241, up from $7,352 in the last budget.
The Ohio Department of Education’s outgoing interim superintendent of public instruction, Stephanie Siddens, used much of her report to the Senate Education Committee on ongoing budget talks to show the importance of reading as a main driver of learning for students.
In emphasizing reading, Siddens also continued a state talking point that the preferred method to teach students how to read across the state is the so-called “science of reading,” a modern literacy strategy that has received mixed reviews from education experts.
“Teachers trained in the science of reading are key to our goal to raise literacy proficiency,” Siddens told the committee.
Siddens provided ODE data on third-grade reading levels, that showed 40% of all Ohio students at the grade level are not proficient in reading. The gap gets greater as the state zooms in on certain demographic groups: 71% of students with disabilities, 64% of Black students and 55% of all economically disadvantaged and English learners are not proficient in reading, Siddens said, citing ODE data.
“Only when children are mastering all of these skills are they proficient readers,” Siddens said. “And only when we graduate proficient readers are they ready to be contributing members of the workforce.”
The current head of ODE said she is encouraged by budget provisions, including monies for early childhood education, which the House increased by $15 million from the governor’s proposal, which will allow services to nearly 4,000 more low-income children per year in the state.
She also praised the House version of the education budget which she said “requires all educator preparation programs to align their coursework with evidence-based strategies for effective literacy instruction aligned to the science of reading.”
But legislators on the Senate Education Committee moved away from talks of literacy to questions about a budget proposal that would create near-universal EdChoice private school scholarships. The current budget proposal would raise income eligibility for the program to 400%, which, for a family of four, would be approximately $120,000.
“Generally, it would be most families in Ohio and most students, in both the governor’s version as well as the House passed version, would become eligible for an EdChoice scholarship,” said Aaron Rausch, the ODE’s chief of budget and school funding.
State Sen. Louis Blessing, III, R-Colerain Twp., hinted at a possible change to the budget or policy change he’s looking into by asking whether private schools would be incentivized to take more middle class families than low-income students if the expansion were put in place, in order to better cover costs of increased student population.
Rausch said the potential for that to occur “could exist,” but it’s hard to anticipate what the increase (if any) would look like until it happens. But he acknowledged the issue could also be with the capacity of the schools if the vouchers are popular.
“It is not just a demand issue, what students want in an EdChoice scholarship, it is also a supply issue,” Rausch said.
What the department is really bracing for is the loss of COVID relief funds in the next year. He said $2.8 billion in funds, 42% of all funds allocated for education, still remain in the state, set to expire in September 2024.
“We’re working really closely with districts to make sure that none of those dollars get left on the table, but at the same time they are being leveraged for activities that are going to have the greatest impact in learning recovery and student success,” Rausch said.
The last of the incoming relief funds, $1.8 billion, coming in the first year of the new budget.
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