Legislative round-up: Lots of school choice bills on the table

After an unusually busy spring and summer
passing major education reforms, the General Assembly isn’t ready to
stop quite yet. September saw renewed debate in the House and Senate
over education issues, most notably those bills that impact K-12 school
choice.

An amended version of House Bill 136
(Huffman) cleared the House education committee last week. The bill
creates the Parental Choice and Taxpayer Savings Scholarship Program
(PACT), a private school scholarship program open to all students
statewide whose families meet a maximum income threshold (see our
earlier coverage of the bill here and Terry’s related editorial above).

Supporters of the bill say it will help
allow more families to send children to the school of their choice.
Under the current version of HB 136, families making up to $95,000 per
year could receive private school scholarships (amounts would vary based
on family income). There are no geographical or school
performance-based restrictions on the scholarship.

Opponents’ concerns are several. The
primary argument is that the program will drain scarce resources from
public schools. The bill attempts to mitigate this concern with a
gradually escalating statewide cap on scholarships and by limiting how
many students per district could use the scholarship to the number that
could be supported by the district’s state per-pupil aid (i.e., if a
district receives $25 million per year in aid from the state, the amount
of scholarships paid out to students from that district could not
exceed $25 million). But even in districts that aren’t highly reliant on
the state for funding, a significant number of scholarships could still
be financed.

Worthington City School Board President
Marc Schare testified earlier in September about the economic impact the
bill would have on his district. His 9,400-student district receives
about 30 percent of its funding from the state – roughly $3,888 per
student or $36.8 million in 2009-10. More than 6,300 PACT scholarships
could theoretically be funded in the Worthington district (the bill
calls for the state to deduct $5,783 from a district for each PACT
scholarship student).

In 2009-10, New Albany-Plain Local Schools
in Franklin County received 13.7 percent of its total funding from the
state, the lowest percentage for any district in Ohio. This equates to
$1,663 per student in the 4,100-student district, or $6.9 million,
enough to fund nearly 1,200 scholarships.

While it’s not likely that a great number
of students would qualify for the scholarship in New Albany (where  just
seven percent of students are classified as “economically
disadvantaged”) or would elect to leave the high-performing district in
droves, the potential impact of the bill on districts’ enrollments and
budgets shouldn’t be easily discounted.

In addition to the negative economic
impact, concerns have been aired about the lack of accountability for
private schools under the bill (see Terry’s editorial above calling for
common performance metrics across all schools of choice). HB 136 does
provide for the Ohio Department of Education to publish disaggregated
performance data about participating private schools; however, private
schools do not lose eligibility to participate in the program based on
poor performance. (An unrelated bill, SB 229
[Sawyer], was introduced last month and would require the Ohio
Department of Education to conduct a performance review of all private
schools accepting students under the current Ed Choice program.)

Opponents also fear that private schools
participating in the program will only enroll high-performing students. 
Instead, they suggest participating schools should not be selective and
should accept all scholarship students who wish to attend. An amendment
offered by Rep. Fedor would have required private schools that accept
the scholarship to enroll all students who apply, but the amendment was
tabled.

Supporters of the bill say it is still a
work in progress. House Speaker Batchelder and Senator Lehner, chair of
the Senate education committee, have publicly indicated the bill will
need additional work in order to progress further. Rep. Huffman, the
bill’s sponsor, says he is open to additional amendments and changes to
the measure.

The Senate education committee heard debate last week about a bill that would restrict students’ school choice options. Senate Bill 175
(Schiavoni) would prohibit students from enrolling in a charter school
if the student’s home district school has a higher state academic rating
than the charter school. The law wouldn’t apply to students with
disabilities, and all parents could petition their child’s home district
school principal for permission to attend the charter school. It is
unclear how the bill would impact students who do not have a home
district assigned school (for example, Cincinnati Public Schools does
not assign high school students to schools based; students must choose a
school).

As with opponents of HB 136, supporters of
SB 175 put money front and center as the impetus for the bill.
Regardless of how much per-pupil state aid a district receives, the
state deducts about $5,700 from the district for each child that leaves
for a charter school. This funding method has long been criticized by
charter school foes and supporters alike. Boardman Local Schools
Superintendent Frank Lazzeri testified that his district loses nearly a
million dollars annually to charter schools, all of which are
lower-performing than his district. Representatives of other
high-performing districts, including North Olmsted, have offered similar
information. Supporters think the bill would provide a strong incentive
for low-performing charter schools to improve and further ensure that
the state was making wise investments in education programs.

Opponents of the bill fear it will
undermine school choice and say it ignores the fact that high-performing
schools don’t necessarily serve all students equally well.

Recently introduced, but not yet up for a committee hearing, are two additional choice-related Senate bills. SB 220 (Sawyer)
would put in place a ban on interdistrict open enrollment until an
open-enrollment study is conducted by ODE and examined by the General
Assembly. Currently, more than 500 districts allow students from outside
their boundaries to attend their schools via some form of open
enrollment.

Sen. Sawyer has also proposed a measure (SB 219)
to lift the exemption for drop-out recovery schools from the state’s
charter school academic death penalty. Drop-out recovery schools are
special programs serving students who have dropped out of high school or
are at great risk of doing so. While they receive an annual report card
and rating like other public schools, they are not subject to automatic
closure for poor performance. Of the 44 drop-out recovery schools that
have at least three years of state performance ratings, nearly half (21)
would be subject to closure this year if this bill were currently in
place.

The House education committee may resume
meetings this month but the Senate education committee isn’t likely the
reconvene until after the November 8 election.

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