Stalemate: Ohio’s Senate and House Reach Impasse on EdChoice Vouchers

According to what is logical, what is constitutional, and what is moral, you would think members of Ohio’s legislature could come together to resolve Ohio’s voucher crisis and provide some relief for school districts going broke because that same legislature (in the final hours of the budget conference committee last summer) surreptitiously and explosively expanded EdChoice Vouchers paid for out of local school districts’ budgets.  But you would be wrong, because in the Ohio Senate, ideology trumps logic, constitutional protection of school funding, and basic morality.

Ohio’s EdChoice Voucher program has created a crisis for Ohio school districts. Here’s why:

  • EdChoice Vouchers are awarded to students in so-called “failing” schools.  The school ratings are based on what everyone—Republican and Democratic legislators alike—agrees are flawed algorithms in the state report card.  Schools are rated in six categories, and if a school scores D or F for two years running in any one of the categories, it becomes an EdChoice Designated School, where students can qualify for a voucher paid for by a local school district budget deduction. The number of EdChoice Designated public schools increased from 255 last school year (2018-2019) to 517 this year (2019-2020), and that number is due to explode to over 1,200 schools for next school year (2020-2021). Two-thirds of all the state’s school districts will have at least one EdChoice Designated school next school year.
  • Each EdChoice voucher is based on a school district deduction—$4,650 for K-8 students and $6,000 for each high school student.  A student is counted as enrolled in the local school district, and the district receives state basic aid for that student, but for many districts, the voucher extracts more than the state’s basic aid per-pupil.  And in an added twist this school year, the state froze basic formula aid for all public schools at last year’s amount.  There is no extra money coming into the school district to pay for any additional vouchers this school year.
  • While previously a student had to have been enrolled in a public school in order to carry a voucher out of that school, in the state budget bill, the Legislature changed that requirement.  This year, any high school student living in the zone of a Designated EdChoice high school qualifies for a voucher even if that student has never attended a public school in the district.

All this means that during this 2019-2020 school year, thousands of students previously enrolled in private and religious schools claimed a voucher, while their school districts received not a cent of extra money for those students from the state.

The Legislature reached a stalemate at the end of January and gave itself 60 days, until April 1, 2020, to reach a compromise.  But the two sides—both with huge Republican majorities—are deeply divided.

The Ohio Senate supports a plan that prevents the number of Designated schools from rising to 1,200 and would, for three years, freeze the number of vouchers available while the Legislature reevaluates the state report cards on which voucher eligibility is determined.  The Senate would maintain the school district deduction method of paying for the vouchers, leaving the responsibility on the backs of local school districts, which have already begun trying to pass additional property tax levies just to begin to cover the cost of vouchers for private school tuition. The Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver quotes one state senator who worries that having the state take over paying for the vouchers would be so expensive that the cost alone would curtail the size of the voucher program. Senators seem less worried about the burden of the school district deduction on local budgets. While school districts have asked for hold-harmless funding to help cover the unexpected expense during the current school year, no one has offered to provide assistance.

The Ohio House passed a very different plan, which was summarily rejected on February 12 by the Ohio Senate.  The House plan would have phased out the current EdChoice Vouchers, ended the awarding of vouchers based on the state school district report card, phased out the school district deduction method of funding, and awarded all future vouchers under a new, fully state-funded, Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship program based on family income—at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.  Only students currently carrying an EdChoice Voucher (or their siblings) would continue to have their vouchers paid for by a school district deduction. The House plan, as proposed, did leave a significant burden on local school districts already losing a large amount of local school district funding to the EdChoice program.

After the Senate rejected the House plan, a Senate-House conference committee began meeting. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes “10 marathon hearings” in which “about 400 witnesses testified for a combined 49 hours of hearings that filled a Saturday morning, an entire President’s Day, and ran past 3 a.m. Wednesday night, and 2 a.m. the following night.”  Public school personnel are demanding help, but so far are seeing no progress in the legislative negotiations.

The absence of logic, constitutionality, and morality in the Ohio Senate is astounding.

Researchers from Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, to Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz, to experts at the National Education Policy Center, to Ohio’s own Howard Fleeter, to the Plain Dealer‘s Rick Exner have documented again and again and again that standardized test scores, which are at the heart of Ohio’s state report card algorithms, correlate primarily with family and neighborhood income. Ohio’s state report cards are designed to punish the school districts across Ohio’s urban areas and rural Appalachia where poverty is concentrated.  It is surely illogical for the Ohio Senate to insist on draining the local budgets of the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.

The Ohio Constitution provides that the state will provide a thorough and efficient system of common schools.  There is no constitutional provision in Ohio for the funding of private and religious schools.

Finally, we are accustomed to hearing members of the Ohio Senate blame public school teachers when their students struggle.  Ohio regularly awards “A” grades to wealthy, white outer ring suburban school districts, which lose very little from their school district budgets to EdChoice Vouchers.  Legislators lavish praise on these “excellent” schools, where children living in cocoons of privilege and wealth benefit from lavish budgets based on local property tax wealth.  One of the unmet mandates of the long and unresolved DeRolph litigation, however, is that the state is supposed to support equity by helping, rather than bankrupting, the school districts serving our state’s most vulnerable children.

Ohio House Passes Emergency Amendment Which Would Solve Some EdChoice Voucher Problems

Ohio’s House Speaker Larry Householder is leading his chamber expeditiously to address the crisis over school vouchers which emerged last weekend, when negotiations between the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House entirely broke down over the state’s EdChoice voucher program. The Ohio House passed an emergency amendment to Senate Bill 89 on Wednesday afternoon to redesign the EdChoice program. The new House amendment will be sent back to the Ohio Senate for consideration next week.

Speaker Householder has expressed growing concern about injustice, not only in the state’s EdChoice Voucher program, but also in the mass of punitive school turnaround policies Ohio has been imposing on its poorest school districts. Given decades of research correlating standardized test scores with the aggregate income of families and neighborhoods, Householder seems to recognize that state must grapple with the underlying causes—poverty and the urgent need for equitable school funding reform. He is pushing the state to support rather than punish its poorest school districts.

The Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock describes Householder’s comments earlier this week at a Columbus, Ohio Associated Press event: “‘It’s become a class problem,’ Householder said. ‘And I don’t mean classroom. I mean a class problem.’  For years, low-performing schools were in Appalachia or urban areas where most of the kids were African American, Householder said. People didn’t seem to care that public schools were deemed failing and losing money when the students enrolled in private schools, he said. This year, 700 new schools—up from the current 500—are considered failing, many of them from wealthier, white areas. ‘When all of a sudden there were 1,203 schools on the list and some of them are from the wealthiest suburbs in the state of Ohio, suddenly alarms went off and now we’ve got to fix this,’ he said.  ‘That’s a class problem.'”

Householder is pushing against a state senate, however, whose members are currently being actively lobbied by Betsy DeVos, who is said to be calling in favors. When the amended Senate Bill 89 goes back for consideration in the Ohio Senate next week, agreement with the House’s new amendment is not to be taken for granted. On Wednesday afternoon, Hancock quoted State Senator Matt Huffman recommending that the Ohio Senate not concur with the House’s newest amendment.

It appears this battle will not be resolved quickly.  Householder is a Beowulf on a quest to protect our public schools from Grendel—the monster of test-and-punish, state takeover and underfunding. A long and ugly battle is to be expected.

Background

A debate over one of Ohio’s four statewide voucher plans—EdChoice Vouchers—collapsed into rancor and chaos last week with House and Senate battling back and forth and unable to move forward. Last Friday, the Legislature finally agreed to a 60 delay, during which the Legislature would grapple with problems in the program, before allowing families to sign up for EdChoice vouchers for next year.

On Monday, this blog covered last week’s ugly debacle in the Ohio Legislature over explosive growth during this school year of EdChoice, due to changes made in the program during the budget conference committee last summer. The number of public schools where students are eligible to claim EdChoice vouchers increased during this 2019-2020 school year to 517, from 255 in the 2018-2019 school year. And the budget bill established that the number of qualifying schools is now scheduled to grow to more than 1,200 public schools in the 2020-2021 school year.

Here are two of the most serious problems which need to be addressed in Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers:

First: Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers are currently “performance-based,”meaning that they are available to students who live in the attendance zone of a “Designated EdChoice Public School.” A public schools is designated for EdChoice if the state’s report card awards the school a grade of “D” or “F”—a term that denotes a “failing” school—for two years running in any one of six report card categories: Achievement, Progress, Gap Closing, Graduation Rate, Improving At-Risk K-3 Readers and Prepared for Success.  The algorithms which determine the grades are not public, and there is consensus across the state and even in the Legislature that the report card system is seriously flawed.

Second:  Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers are funded through a public school district deduction. EdChoice counts the voucher student as enrolled in the local public school and then extracts $4,650 for each elementary school voucher and $6,000 for each high school voucher right out of the local public school district’s budget. But a serious problem arises because in Ohio, state funding is allocated at different rates from school district to school district, and in many cases the vouchers extract more dollars per pupil from the local school budget than the state awards to that district in per pupil state aid.  Added to this: Until this year, to qualify for a voucher, an Ohio student must have been enrolled in the public school in the year previous to applying for the voucher. But surreptitiously inserted into the state budget last summer was an amendment providing that high school students may now receive a voucher even if they have never been enrolled in a public school. These provisions added together have burdened many Ohio school districts with more dollars lost to to EdChoice vouchers than the per-pupil amount they receive from the state.  Much of the money is flowing away from local school districts to students who have always been enrolled in private and religious schools and never attended a public school in the district from which the EdChoice dollars are flowing.

What Does the Emergency Amendment, Passed by the Ohio House on Wednesday, accomplish?

The House amendment passed on Wednesday ends the performance-based EdChoice vouchers and moves all students accepting a new voucher to a new program—Buckeye Opportunity Scholarships—an income based voucher program with students qualifying at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

The House amendment does not fully end the school district deduction funding for the vouchers. First time voucher applicants who qualify for the new Buckeye Opportunity Scholarships will receive income-based vouchers fully funded by the state.  Students who currently have an EdChoice voucher (and their siblings) will keep the voucher, paid for by the school district deduction until they graduate from high school. However, if the family’s income falls at or under 250 percent of the federal poverty level, these students will be transferred (beginning in the 2021-2022 school year) to the new program paid for at full state expense.  On Wednesday afternoon, the Plain Dealer‘s Laura Hancock explained: “The House plan also will try to get as many kids off of performance-based vouchers as possible by checking family incomes to see if they qualify for income-based vouchers and moving them over to that system… (This) will make a difference for local school districts. Performance-based vouchers are paid for by local school districts in the form of a deduction….”  The House’s failure fully to eliminate the school district deduction, which school districts fear will continue to drain millions of dollars annually out of their local budgets for vouchers, remains a cause for alarm.

The amendment the House sent back to the Senate on Wednesday night would also establish a formal Educational Assssment Study Committee to review serious problems with the uses of statewide standardized testing and with the state school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts based primarily on the standardized tests. The committee would be expected to report out by October 1, 2020.

Important Reforms Omitted from the Proposed House Amendment

Public school officials and public school advocates had hoped the House would address several additional problems with the current EdChoice program—issues that the House chose not to address in its proposed EdChoice overhaul:

First:  The House amendment ignores the need for hold-harmless funding for school districts with unexpected and sudden costs during the current 2019-2020 school year from last summer’s expansion of EdChoice. School districts hit hard during this school year by the last summer’s expansion of the EdChoice program had hoped for passage of $30 million (to be distributed across affected school districts) to cushion the unexpected collapse of their local school district budgets during the current school year. Such hold-harmless funding was discussed by legislators in both chambers last week. And the Cleveland Municipal School District had expected similar relief for explosive voucher growth this year through the school district deduction.  The House amendment does not provide this hold-harmless funding.  (A more modest $10 million to help some school districts damaged in the current school year was passed last week in a separate bill.)

Second:  The House amendment does not require that to qualify for a voucher, students must have been previously enrolled in a public school before they are granted tax dollars to escape that public school—the very purpose for which the Legislature said it created the program. Today, the vouchers are being awarded to students who have always attended private and religious schools.

House Passes A Second Very Positive Amendment to Senate Bill 89

On Wednesday, the Ohio House passed another very welcome emergency amendment to Senate Bill 89: to end Ohio’s state school district takeovers established without adequate public hearings in the summer of 2015. The House amendment would end the state takeovers and the top-down, appointed Academic Distress Commissions in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland. Elected representatives from Lorain and Youngstown spoke passionately for the need to restore local control and community engagement in their school districts, which were thrust into chaos in recent years by their Academic Distress Commissions and their appointed CEOs.