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Ohio EdChoice Voucher Program Continues to Increase
Started as a program to give students in so-called failing schools a different education option, Ohio’s EdChoice voucher program has grown significantly since its inception. In fact, the number of public school buildings designated as EdChoice eligible has recently exploded over a period of three years. For the 2018-2019 school year, fewer than 300 public buildings were on the EdChoice eligibility list. The list recently released for the 2020-2021 school year shows over 1200 school buildings. That is one third of all public school buildings. This explosion results in a huge increase in the amount of voucher money that is deducted from school districts’ state aid payments.
Buildings in districts otherwise seen as high-performing, now have buildings whose students may apply for a voucher to attend a private school. High school students who have always attended a private school and have never set foot in a public school can now be eligible for a voucher. School buildings that saw academic improvement during what are known as the safe harbor years cannot count that improvement to avoid EdChoice eligibility. How can this be, you say?
There is no one answer to this question. Because of the timing of the dramatic increase in eligible buildings coupled with a few changes to the program contained in the recent budget bill, HB 166, there is a perception that HB 166 is the culprit. However, changes to the criteria for EdChoice eligibility were put in place in 2012 (effective March 2013). Those changes made it much easier for buildings to be added to the list.
However, because the changes were suspended during the safe harbor years (school years 2014-2015 through 2016-2017), it was impossible for districts to predict that buildings would qualify. Districts/buildings were protected during the safe harbor period from becoming EdChoice eligible while the new report cards and changes in testing were phased in. But further complicating matters, those safe harbor Year school years continue to be disregarded when determining EdChoice eligibility, so years prior to 2014-2015 were used to determine EdChoice eligibility for this year’s vouchers (the state looks at two of the most recent school years).
HB 166 (effective for next year) included a provision that clarified a practice that ODE had started for the current school year (citing a re-interpretation of previous law). This new practice allows high school students who have never attended a public school but the public high school of residence is deemed EdChoice eligible, to apply for a voucher. Payments for these vouchers are deducted from the public school district even though the district has never received state funds for the private school students.
Complicating this explosion in voucher deductions is the fact that education foundation funding for school districts have been frozen at last year’s levels (through HB 166). Effectively in cases where voucher deductions have increased, districts are experiencing cuts in funding. While districts are receiving Student Wellness and Success Funds aimed at eliminating non-educational barriers to student success, those funds are earmarked and cannot be used to offset the loss of funds to private school vouchers.
Amid all the chaos of the increase in EdChoice vouchers, we are seeing some willingness on the part of legislators to make changes. Click here for a list of changes developed by an EdChoice steering committee hosted by OSBA, BASA and OASBO. Feel free to use the list when communicating with your legislators. We are hopeful that changes will be made when the legislature returns in January.