Shortly after Governor Kasich introduced his latest budget bill a few weeks ago (HB472), it was split up into a series of different bills that addressed different topics and was distributed to the appropriate House committees. The education components were written up as House Bill 487 and sent to the House Education Committee. Last week, that bill quietly passed out of the committee (and is expected to be considered by the full House on April 9) with a variety of small changes and with one very significant addition.

House Bill 487 would require every student attending a private school using a state-funded EdChoice voucher be subjected to Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law.

Here is the new section of Ohio Revised Code that is proposed:

Sec. 3301.163.  (A) Beginning July 1, 2015, any third-grade student who attends a chartered nonpublic school with a scholarship awarded under either the educational choice scholarship pilot program, prescribed in sections 3310.01 to 3310.17, or the pilot project scholarship program prescribed in sections 3313.974 to 3313.979 of the Revised Code, shall be subject to the third-grade reading guarantee retention provisions under division (A)(2) of section 3313.608 of the Revised Code.

(B)(1) Each chartered nonpublic school that enrolls students in any of grades kindergarten through three and that accepts students under the educational choice scholarship pilot program or the pilot project scholarship program shall adopt policies and procedures for the annual assessment of the reading skills of those students. Each school may use the diagnostic assessment to measure reading ability for the appropriate grade level prescribed in division (B) of section 3313.608 of the Revised Code. If the school uses such assessments, the department of education shall furnish them to the chartered nonpublic school.

(2) For each student identified as having reading skills below grade level, the school shall do both of the following:

(a) Provide to the student’s parent or guardian, in writing, all of the following:
(i) Notification that the student has been identified as having a substantial deficiency in reading;
(ii) Notification that if the student attains a score in the range designated under division (A)(3) of section 3301.0710 of the Revised Code on the assessment prescribed under that section to measure skill in English language arts expected at the end of third grade, the student shall be retained unless the student is exempt under division (A)(1) of section 3313.608 of the Revised Code.

(b) Provide intensive reading instruction services, as determined appropriate by the school, to each student identified under this section.

(C) Each chartered nonpublic school subject to this section annually shall report to the department the number of students identified as reading at grade level and the number of students identified as reading below grade level.

This inequity in the original law was revealed by us back in December and was picked up by print media in March. The Columbus Dispatch’s editorial board directly called for this expansion of the law to cover voucher students, and now they’ve got their wish, much to the detriment of thousands of additional young children.

While some may rejoice in this change and see it as a victory for public schools and the accountability of tax dollars, we do not share that joy.

Here’s the stark reality of this change — it puts more low-income children at an even greater risk of dropping out of school. Students in Ohio using vouchers overwhelmingly qualify for the funds due to their status of living in poverty. And as we’ve written repeatedly, research clearly indicates that the retention of a child is a significant risk factor for that child dropping out of school later on. Meanwhile, children whose parents can afford to send them to private schools are still able to buy their way out of testing and the threat of retention.

While we can generally support the decision to at least include the requirement that the private schools provide additional reading instruction services to these at-risk students, the legislators are still ignoring the wealth of research that strongly opposes mandatory retention. We stand by our strong advocacy that the mandatory retention component of this law should be eradicated and the decision whether or not to retain a student be restored to schools and parents — wouldn’t that be the “local control” that we hear those on the right continually espouse as being so important?

Sadly, instead of changing the law to eliminate a key factor that leads to low-income children dropping out of school, the legislature has instead exacerbated the problem and further imposed a penalty upon children of poverty in Ohio.

Who will speak for these children? Certainly not Ohio’s legislators, especially those on the House Education Committee, who either won’t listen or are intentionally ignoring them.

Either way, it’s time for the “Education Reformers” in Ohio’s General Assembly to go.