The raucous debate over school choice took yet another turn last week as the Ohio House approved anthat would overhaul the EdChoice program. The lower chamber’s plan emerges alongside a as legislators continue talks on the future of the state’s main private-school scholarship program.
As most Gadfly readers know, Ohio has two. In the performance-based model, scholarship (i.e., “voucher”) eligibility hinges on public schools’ ratings on the state report card. The income-based model, on the other hand, is tied to family income. The House proposes scrapping the performance-based EdChoice program, which has been at the center of the recent uproar, and relying instead on the income-based model.
At face value, this policy shift has some merit. In fact, we athave recommended a move in this direction, as it would focus attention on the needs of low- and middle-income families, streamline EdChoice, and alleviate some of the adversarial nature of the state rating system.
But as policy wonks are rightly quick to say, “the devil’s in the details.” Though very likely unintended, the details of the House proposal would endanger private-school choice, especially over the long haul. Let’s consider four concerns about the plan.
1. Makes thousands of students immediately ineligible for private-school choice.
One of the flashpoints in the debate over EdChoice is how many public schools should be on the voucher eligibility list under the performance-based model. Prior to the passage of stopgapon January 31, approximately 1,200 schools were scheduled to be designated in 2020–21—a sizeable increase compared to the 517 in 2019–20. Roughly speaking, that would have doubled the number of students eligible to participate in the program. Seeking to address concerns about this rapid growth in eligibility, the Senate would reduce the number to 426 schools, eliminating all of the increase in eligibility and then some.
Yet the House goes even further. By ending first-time eligibility for the performance-based voucher, the House effectively reduces the number of designated schools to zero. Aside from a few minor exceptions, only returning performance-based recipients would be able to receive this scholarship in 2020–21. That means a student who attends a chronically low-performing school—one that has long been designated under EdChoice—could no longer apply for this voucher. While she may be able to apply for an income-based scholarship, there is no assurance that she’ll receive one, as funds for that program may run out. (She also might not be poor enough to qualify.)
2. Does not guarantee that current EdChoice recipients will keep their scholarships after next school year.
In an effort to rapidly unwind the performance-based program, the House plan forces students who receive that type of scholarship in 2020–21—and who also meet the income eligibility guidelines—to apply for an income-based voucher instead. Because a large proportion of the who use a performance-based scholarship are low- to middle-income, this provision will result in a large influx of students applying for the income-based scholarship. As a result, upwards of 40,000 returning EdChoice recipients are likely to apply for an income-based scholarship in FY 2022.
That’s a big problem because the income-based program is funded via line-item appropriation in the state budget. And the FY 2021 amount of $121 million supports only around 25,000 scholarships. Unless legislators significantly increase this amount in the next budget cycle or implement another funding mechanism, thousands of returning students won’t receive a scholarship in FY 2022 and could be forced to leave their current schools.
3. Limits scholarship opportunities for first-time applicants, including newly eligible, middle-income Ohioans.
To its credit, the House plan increases the eligibility threshold for the income-based EdChoice scholarship to families with incomes at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty guideline (up from 200 percent now). Although this does not match the Senate’s proposal to raise the cut-off to 300 percent, this a step in the right direction toward broadening private school opportunities for working-class Ohioans.
Yet because the number of income-based scholarships are capped by the line-item appropriation, many of these newly eligible families who apply for a voucher may not actually receive one. Priority is given to returning students and, as explained above, there will likely be more than enough of those to claim most, if not all, of the available scholarships.
4. Exposes EdChoice to wholesale repeal via line-item veto.
Speaking of line-item appropriations, this manner of funding EdChoice puts the entire program—both the current performance-based and income-based recipients—at risk of a line-item veto. While such a veto is not an immediate concern, it’s always possible that an anti-choice governor would eliminate the program with one stroke of the pen. Doing so would leave tens of thousands of Ohio students without the support necessary to attend the school that their parents believe best meets their needs.
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The House’s decision to shift gears to an income-based EdChoice is not unreasonable. But such a significant policy transition has to be done with great care to avoid jeopardizing the scholarships of existing participants and leaving expectant families stuck on waitlists. More attention needs to be given to how to fund existing scholarships and how to insulate them from future ideologically-driven attacks.
As Senate and House members continue to work on legislation that impacts Ohio families and schools, the policy details will matter tremendously. With any luck, they’ll get them right.
 These would mostly be returning scholarship recipients from 2019–20.
 As of , 90 percent of students in the performance-based EdChoice program were economically disadvantaged (more recent data are not available).
 At least 15,000 students are likely to reapply for the income-based scholarship.
 The performance-based EdChoice is not exposed to a line-item veto because it is presently funded via deduction from districts’ state allocations. The income-based EdChoice, however, is currently exposed to such a veto.