Ohio House Moves to End Performance-Based School Vouchers

After controversial tweaks made students from more Ohio public schools eligible for vouchers to attend private schools, some Ohio lawmakers want to switch to an income-based system instead.

Feb 6, 2020 at 3:06 pm
click to enlarge Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder - Ohio House of Representatives
Ohio House of Representatives
Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder

A program that pays for students at some public schools in Ohio to attend private ones could change dramatically soon if the Ohio House of Representatives has its way. But there is disagreement over the measure in the state Senate.

The House yesterday passed an overhaul of Ohio's voucher program that would shift criteria used to decide if a student gets a voucher away from school performance — a hotly contested issue, especially after recent changes included some wealthy districts among the schools eligible for vouchers — to a system based on students' income.

Currently, students at schools that don't perform well on the state's school rating report cards are eligible for up to $4,600 a year for K-8 education and $6,000 a year for high school education at private schools under Ohio's EdChoice program. Families can also apply for vouchers if they make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The legislation that passed 88-7 in the Ohio House yesterday, however, would phase out the school performance element and increase the availability of Buckeye Opportunity Scholarships for students from families making up to 250 percent of the federal poverty line. Students above that level could also receive partial scholarships, depending on the funding available from the state.

Students already receiving school performance-based vouchers could keep them under the House's plan, and their siblings could also get them. But they would be the last to receive the vouchers under the current model.

Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed deep frustration with the state's report card for Ohio public schools, which they say does not adequately measure true school performance. 

The discontent with the report card system became more apparent recently, when a half dozen changes to voucher criteria pushed by private school lobbyists meant students at more than 1,200 schools — including schools in wealthy districts like Indian Hill — became eligible for vouchers to private schools. Prior to this year, that number was about 500. The inflated number of schools represents about one-third of all public schools in Ohio.

Schools that end up on the voucher-eligible list take a financial hit as money is taken from their budgets to pay for vouchers, further weakening their performance.

That led to a scramble to adjust the criteria as a Feb. 1 application deadline for the EdChoice program neared. 

"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,” Republican Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder said at a forum on education Feb 4. “That’s a class problem.”

The House and State Senate couldn't agree on an earlier fix the latter body put together before that date, however. The Senate wanted to keep the EdChoice program but reduce the number of schools with eligible students to 425 while setting aside $30 million for schools affected by the expansion of the program. The House, however, didn't like that plan.

As the disagreement continued, the House and Senate agreed to push the application deadline to April 1. That, however, led to a lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court from some families represented by conservative group Citizens for Community Values. That group says the deadline change is a hardship for those families hoping to participate in the performance-based voucher program and has asked the state high court to allow applications from the original 1,200 schools. The court could hear arguments on the case or rule on it soon.

The State Senate doesn't seem keen on eliminating the performance-based criteria altogether, at least not in the short-term. Senate President Larry Obhof has said recently that structural changes to the state's voucher system should come over time and with deliberation, and the body seems unlikely to adopt the House's fix.