FILE - OH Larry Householder

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder.

The state House has passed a bill to replace the EdChoice voucher program, but a leading Democrat says the plan is far from perfect.

The House signed off on Senate Bill 89, which creates the Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship. The scholarships start with the 2020-21 school year and give top priority to Ohio’s low-income students.

State lawmakers previously postponed a fix of the EdChoice voucher program but appropriated $10 million from the fiscal 2021 General Revenue Fund for scholarships as part of Senate Bill 120.

“This is the first step on the road to meaningful education reform that works for all Ohio students, regardless of their ZIP Code or circumstances,” House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said in a news release. “The Buckeye Opportunity Scholarship plan will put low-income students at the front of the line.”

Buckeye Opportunity Scholarships will be awarded to first-time voucher recipients based on income and directly funded by the state. The number of scholarships depends on how much lawmakers decide to allocate.

“Our fight to restore the Ohio Promise of a good, quality public education continues,” House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, said in a news release. “House Democrats held firm throughout this process that we would not vote for a bill that hurt our public schools.

“The bill we passed today is far from perfect, but of all the options we have been offered so far, it provides the most help for our public schools,” Sykes added. “We look forward to continuing to work on this issue as we address bigger issues like school funding, the state report card, and oversight of private schools receiving taxpayer money.”

The EdChoice voucher system is primarily based on a list of “failing schools.” Schools are placed on the list based on a series of education-related criteria; students are then eligible for a voucher to attend a private school.

Critics derided the program after state officials announced the list of “underperforming” schools would swell from 517 schools this year to 1,227 for the 2020-21 school year.

“The Ohio House took an important step to transform the voucher program in a way that moves away from the blame game and toward meeting the needs of ALL students,” Ohio Education Association (OEA) President Scott DiMauro said in a news release. “I’m hopeful that the broad, bi-partisan support in the House is indicative of a new course in education policy – one that addresses the needs of the 90% of Ohio students who attend our public schools.”

SB 89 also dissolves Academic Distress Commissions currently in place in East Cleveland, Lorain and Youngstown and prevents new commissions from being created until at least 2024.

“This is now the second time the Ohio House has voted overwhelmingly to dissolve Academic Distress Commissions,” state Rep. Joe Miller, D-Amherst, said in a news release. “… Now is the time for our counterparts in the Senate to acknowledge the will of the people and quickly pass SB 89.”