COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Ohio continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to sign legislation Friday that would enact major changes for Ohio students and schools.
The Ohio legislature approved HB 197 Wednesday, which affects graduation, state testing, and a controversial school voucher program.
After months of public debate and political fights, state lawmakers opted to freeze, instead of fix, EdChoice.
Any student who was eligible during 2019-2020 school year will remain eligible during the 2020-2021 school year.
The legislation puts the brakes on a pending explosion of schools whose students would qualify for EdChoice vouchers.
If the legislature had not acted, students assigned to 1,227 Ohio public schools would be eligible for the program. Instead, the number of schools on the state’s
EdChoice program will remain at 517 for the next school year.
EdChoice is supposed to help students at struggling public schools pay for private education. It provides $4,650 for eligible elementary school students and $6,000 for high school students.
EdChoice debate continues
“Clearly, the legislators had to concentrate… and put a Band-Aid on this issue until we can fix it later,” said Kevin Bacon, President and CEO, School Choice Ohio.
The Columbus-based advocacy group has lobbied to expand EdChoice vouchers in Ohio.
“Obviously, we are disappointed,” he said. “We have about 700 schools with students that should be eligible for a voucher, but aren’t.”
On the flip side, several Ohio public school superintendents have voiced concerns about how schools are labeled low-performing, citing serious flaws in the state’s report card system.
Superintendents have also voiced concern about how much the vouchers cost districts. Districts currently have to pick up the tab for EdChoice vouchers.
News 5 found some districts had to spend millions of dollars this school year, despite the fact that many of the students who received vouchers had never attended classes in their districts.
“It’s fundamentally unfair,” said Charlie Smialek, Parma Schools Superintendent, during an interview with News 5 earlier this year.
Smialek said EdChoice vouchers cost his district $2.1 million during 2019-2020 school year. However, nearly every student who received a voucher has never attended a Parma City School.
"They never were our students,” said Smialek. “They never set foot in a Parma City Schools building or school.”
"We are really just using the scholarship dollars to fund a choice that had been made potentially 10 or 12 years ago,” he said.
The bill passed Wednesday also cancels annual state testing for the 2019-2020 school year.
During his daily news briefings, Gov. DeWine has repeatedly indicated the tests are not a priority at this time.
Ohio students were scheduled to start testing this month.
State report card grades for this year were also waived in the bill because a significant portion of schools’ letter grades are based on state test scores.
High school seniors who were on track to graduate when schools closed will still receive a diploma, even if they are unable to complete certain requirements because of the shutdown, according to the bill.
Third-graders usually have to achieve a certain score on the state’s third-grade reading test in order to be promoted to fourth grade.
The bill allows schools to promote third-graders to fourth grade without completing the state test, unless their school administrators and teachers believe a student needs to be held back.
HB 197 opens the doors for districts to cancel in-person classes for the remainder of the school year by allowing schools to make-up days missed due to coronavirus through distance learning.
However, Ohio school buildings are still currently ordered to remain closed until only April 6.
When asked during his daily news briefing Thursday about shutting down schools for the rest of the school year, DeWine replied, I “don’t know” if or when he will make a decision to close schools.
“We’re not there yet,” he said.