Months of wrangling on changes to the EdChoice voucher system to fend off a major expansion in the 2020-2021 school year gave way to a simple freeze of eligibility Wednesday as the coronavirus response took precedence over what had been the main topic of discussion several weeks ago.
Amendments to HB197 (Powell-Merrin) that passed on an emergency basis to respond to the pandemic also answered the call for testing waivers and other flexibility schools were looking for after being ordered to shut their doors and teach students remotely as a public health precaution.
Also of relevance to schools with tax levies on the March primary ballot, the legislation extended mail-in voting into late April.
Lawmakers had been working furiously to fend off a looming expansion in the number of school buildings at which students are eligible for EdChoice vouchers, a list that was set to grow from more than 500 in the current academic year to 1,200-plus in the coming year. They failed to meet the deadline of enacting reforms before the Feb. 1 application period began and ended up delaying applications until April 1 to buy more time, only to find themselves in the middle of a public health emergency as that new deadline approached.
HB197 freezes the list of eligible buildings, currently at 517. Siblings of current voucher recipients will be allowed to receive one. Applications will open Wednesday, April 1. Before the current crisis, lawmakers had been debating various proposals to shrink the list and/or expand the use of income-based vouchers. The delayed application period also sparked a lawsuit by Citizens for Community Values and numerous families seeking vouchers.
Following supportive comments from Gov. Mike DeWine and other state leaders, as well as latitude granted by the U.S. Department of Education, the legislation foregoes state academic testing requirements and state report cards for this academic year and creates a safe harbor from any sanctions that would have resulted.
Local schools will get flexibility on deciding next steps for students at key points in their academic careers. They can permit high school students to graduate if the principal determines they've "successfully completed" the high school curriculum or an individualized education program. And they are generally exempt from holding students back under the third-grade reading guarantee, "unless the school principal and student's reading teacher determine the student is not reading at grade level."
The legislation lifts the cap on how many days or hours of instruction schools can deliver education via distance learning, reflecting the reality of mandatory closings for all Ohio schools. Services are also allowed to be provided electronically for students under the state's scholarship programs for students with special needs. The amendment language "declares the intent of the General Assembly that school districts and other public and private schools continue to find ways to keep students actively engaged in learning opportunities for the remainder of the school year and to grant students who need in-person instructional experiences to complete diploma requirements or career-technical education programs to access school facilities as soon as reasonably possible after the director of health permits such access, even if the last instructional day of the school year has passed."
Other provisions of the legislation, according to summaries provided by the House and Senate, include the following:
- Authority for the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODAg) to give exemptions from food processing requirements to give schools flexibility to provide meals to students while buildings are closed.
- Flexibility for teachers who were to be evaluated this academic year.
- Granting of provisional teaching licenses in 2020-2021 for new teachers who were unable to take a final licensure test because testing centers were closed, if they've graduated from college and successfully completed student teaching and background checks.
- Authority for local boards of education, along with other public bodies, to meet electronically during the public health emergency so long as they can provide for public access to the phone or video conference.
- A delay in the state tax filing deadline to July 15, in alignment with the delayed federal deadline. School district income taxes are filed via state returns.
House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford) addressed the amendment and the voucher freeze after the day's House session with reporters.
"Well, I don't think we really had any choice but to make the decision that we made. Certainly, we would have liked to have come up with a long-term plan, but that didn't happen. And so this was our fallback, the House presented this as an opportunity for a fallback. And I think this is probably the best we could do at this time," he said.
Asked about families who'd made financial decisions based on the projected eligibility of 1,200-plus buildings, Householder said, "Well, you know, the portal never opened. And so they'd never been granted that voucher. They only applied. And, you know, it could be like anything else you apply for, college, that doesn't mean you're going to end up with an acceptance. And so the state's decided to wait on the acceptance, until next year. Hopefully we have a plan in place by that time, some type of a comprehensive plan to deal with it."
As to the effect on school budgets from the voucher program, Householder said larger budget concerns are coming down the road. "Well, as far as revenue streams are concerned, you know we have a state problem and the locals are going to have a problem as well. You know, tax collections are going to be down and state revenue is going to be down. But also, local tax collection is going to be down. So these are all issues that we're going to have to deal with moving forward in the future. We're going to be faced with some significant challenges that we don't know what they are yet. And so we're just going to have to deal with them one at a time," he said.