A hearing room packed with angry parents is exactly the kind of scene Sen. Matt Huffman wants to avoid repeating.
The Lima Republican told The Dispatch that he felt terrible for parents who passed on private school scholarships in December only to be told by the legislature in March that they no longer qualified for EdChoice scholarships.
“The state basically wrecked these families’ finances and these kids’ education opportunities,” Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said.
Both men agree that can’t happen again; Ohio needs to change the way awards its performance-based vouchers as soon as possible. And Huffman has a plan he wants to pass before Thanksgiving.
Here’s how it would work:
Ohio traditionally gives students in “underperforming” schools money to help pay for private school through a scholarship program called EdChoice. The problem, according to both Republicans and Democrats, is that the grading system used to put schools on that list is broken. The current calculation would put more than 1,200 buildings on the list for the 2021-2022 school year, including ones in high-performing districts, including Dublin and Upper Arlington.
What Huffman wants to do is switch to an entirely new system that starts by looking at income levels.
“The best indicator of success for a child is the poverty of a community that they live in … ” Huffman said. “We’ve tried to identify school districts where a community has high poverty or relatively high poverty.”
He’s using a federal program called Title 1 that gives extra dollars to schools with high percentages of low-income students. School building where 20% or more students take Title 1 funds would automatically qualify for the EdChoice list.
However, they wouldn’t be added to the list unless they met a second criterion: Being in the bottom 20% of Ohio’s school performance index. It’s a ranking of all Ohio public schools from one to 3,000 that’s generated from scores on certain statewide tests.
“We’re turning this on its head,” Huffman said. “You don’t go on the EdChoice list by doing bad, you get off the EdChoice list by doing good.”
The plan produces a list of 469 schools — well below the more than 1,200 set to be on the list if the legislature does nothing.
Some schools might drop off the list too, which is why Huffman’s plan also raises the income threshold for the EdChoice expansion scholarship from 200% to 250% of the federal poverty level (about $65,000 for a family of four).
Opponents, including Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro, said the problem with this method is there will always be schools on the list — even if no one is failing.
He said to think of it like a test in school. Every student could pass with flying colors and there would still be a bottom 20%.
“The sad irony of the whole thing is private schools that take vouchers don’t have state report cards at all,” DiMauro said. “Parents don’t really have good apples to apples opportunities for comparison.”
Huffman just started sharing his proposal, which he plans to introduce as an amendment to Senate Bill 89, so many Democrats hadn’t seen it yet. But Huffman told The Dispatch the only difference their support would make in the Republican-dominated legislature is whether the bill can pass with an emergency clause or not.
If the bill has an emergency clause, it can go into effect immediately. If it doesn’t, it takes 90 days to become law. That would mean moving the opening of the EdChoice scholarship application process from Feb 1 to March 1.
“If we are going to make changes, we need to do that now,” Obhof said. “Otherwise we will recreate that doughnut hole again, effectively preventing kids in roughly 700-800 districts from getting scholarships or aid now, but then pulling the EdChoice rug out from under them later. This can’t wait until the next General Assembly.”