COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – From stripping the state education board of most of its power to expanding veteran teacher eligibility, the Ohio Senate has packed the state budget with policies overhauling K-12 education.

The Senate’s partisan budget, passed last week, allocates more than $29.5 billion for K-12 education over the next two fiscal years. With increases to state foundation funding, dropout prevention, recovery programs and literacy improvements, Republican lawmakers have called the budget “transformational” and “historic.” But Senate Democrats and other critics have pointed to other provisions, including proposed legislation and cuts to funding outlined in the House’s version of the budget.

EdChoice expansion

The Senate has expanded the EdChoice Scholarship Program beyond the hefty boosts suggested in prior budget proposals. With private school vouchers made universally available, families making at or below 450% of the federal poverty line will receive $6,165 per student in kindergarten through eighth grade and $8,407 per high school student. 

From those maximum rates, the Senate scales down scholarship amounts for every 50% above 450% of the federal poverty line. Families making between 450-500% FPL will receive $5,200 per K-8 student and $7,050 per high schooler, while those making more than 750% FPL or more will receive $650 or $950 vouchers, depending on grade level.

The Senate’s universal EdChoice proposal would cost the state $372 million more over the next two years compared with the House’s suggested 450% FPL eligibility cutoff, according to the Legislative Service Commission. Coupled with eligibility expansion of the Autism Scholarship Program and increased base amounts for the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program, the commission projects the state to spend $964.5 million in fiscal year 2024 and $1.05 billion in FY 2025 on scholarship programs.

Expanding private school voucher programs has been a priority for Republican lawmakers; multiple bills have been introduced increasing voucher eligibility and developing new programs. It’s part of a swath of policy proposals aimed at what Republicans call parents’ rights in education, from the Parents’ Bill of Rights expected to soon have a House floor vote to the loosened homeschooling regulations the Senate folded into the budget.

“Parents know what is best for their kids – not the government, not bureaucrats,” Sen. Kristina Roegner (R-Hudson) said before the budget vote. “It’s parents.”

But opponents of EdChoice expansion view the increased spending as a direct cost to public schools, which receive funds based on student enrollment.

In late May, 41 urban school districts across the state wrote a letter to the General Assembly, urging the prioritization of public school funding over private school vouchers. Many of those districts are also party to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Ohio’s private school voucher system, arguing that the state is not upholding its duty to fund a “thorough and efficient” public school system.

“We are worlds apart when it comes to how do we fund public schools first, because to us, the Democratic caucus, that’s our first priority,” Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio said after the budget passed. “And then we understand and know vouchers are here, but what’s a fair format? And we had no agreement on that.”

Stripping power from state board of education

A bill passed along party lines by the Senate in March redesigning the Department of Education has been added to the budget. Senate Bill 1 moves most responsibilities of the state superintendent and board of education under a governor appointee and renames the department to the Department of Education and Workforce.

SB1 is necessary to bring accountability to the education department, Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland) said. Sen. Andrew Brenner (R-Delaware) echoed Cirino’s calls for increased accountability, highlighting the state board as an inefficient model of governance.

“This has had a lot of vetting, a lot of discussion, a lot of public discussion on it, and I think it’s something that’s been needed for a long time,” Brenner said.

The Director of Education and Workforce would be responsible for developing academic standards, issuing and revoking state charters and administering state scholarship programs, among other things. The state board of education would retain its powers regarding licensure, licensee discipline and school district territory transfers.

SB1 is widely unpopular among school districts and teaching organizations, including the Ohio Education Association. Including the bill — which had its most recent committee hearing in early May — in the state’s budget appears to “short-circuit the legislative process,” said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association.

“We want to ensure the voices of educators still have an important role in state standards and curriculum decisions are made at the state level,” DiMauro said. “By essentially gutting their powers, I think that has the real danger of undermining educators’ voice.”

School funding and student wellness

The Senate has upheld some funding components the House incorporated into the budget, including by using updated data to calculate per-student base costs. Using 2022 calculations, the budget increases the per-student base cost to $8,241, more than a 10% increase from Gov. Mike DeWine’s $7,352.

It’s a welcome rollover from the previous version of the budget but still falls short, DiMauro said. Although the Senate allocates about $250 million more to the foundation fund each fiscal year than DeWine’s budget does, total foundation funding is still about $541 million less than the House’s proposal.

“Overall, this Senate budget is overwhelmingly and disappointingly anti-public education, starting with its approach to school funding,” DiMauro said. “At a time when 90% of Ohio’s kids attend our local public schools, the Senate has chosen to give a massive giveaway to families who send their kids to private schools.”

The Fair School Funding Plan asked the General Assembly to fund research into student success and wellbeing, including research on mitigating poverty’s impact on academic achievement and improving student mental health. The House poised the budget to meet some of those challenges with research funding and grants for after-school programs – but the Senate nixed those allocations.

The Senate also abandoned the House’s plan to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students who qualify for free and reduced meals, lowering the state’s school lunch matching funds by nearly $4.2 million each year.

Student wellness is prioritized in other ways, including reinstating tens of millions of dollars proposed by DeWine to improve literacy among elementary students. The Senate removed DeWine’s mandate that the education department develops a free dyslexia screening measure for schools to use by next January, but it still requires more frequent screenings, including for transfer students in grades K-6.

“We’re finally recognizing that we’ve had a crisis in reading, and it needs to be fixed,” Brenner said.

The Senate also reserved $5 million next year to help school districts supply school bathrooms with free menstrual products for grades 6-12 – a requirement that will be unfunded in the years to come.

Teacher success and development

Teacher-focused programs folded into the House budget have been eliminated in the Senate’s version, including the provision to raise the minimum teacher salary from $30,000 to $40,000.

The minimum salary boost would have raised nearly 17,000 teachers’ wages, according to the Legislative Service Commission, and it would have cost the state $79 million each fiscal year.

The Ohio Education Association has long advocated for an increase to the minimum teacher salary, DiMauro said. It’s disappointing for him to see the Senate move back on the House’s progress toward a $50,000 minimum — the association’s ultimate goal.

“We were happy that the House chose to take a strong step in addressing the need for caring, qualified educators in every classroom across the state by addressing the educator pay gap,” DiMauro said. “The Senate does nothing to address the growing educator shortage facing our state, and that is really causing a threat to our students.”

The Senate also removed a House-designed program to pay off up to $40,000 in student loans for teachers in high-priority districts. A required paid professional development day for each teacher each school year has also been eliminated.

Military veterans’ eligibility to teach has also been expanded under the Senate budget proposal to any veteran honorably discharged who passes a background check. Veteran teachers would be required to register with the state education board and, like licensed educators, enroll in the Retained Applicant Fingerprint Database, which compares fingerprints to new arrest and court disposition records.