Friday, July 18, 2003

Lawmakers agree on school plan

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Lawmakers say they've reached a deal on how to count Ohio schoolchildren even as the federal government warned the state is still in danger of losing $400 million in education funds if the bill isn't passed soon.

Instead of a proposal to count children twice, in October and March, lawmakers have agreed to return to the current practice of one count in October with three-year averaging, Senate Education Chairman Robert Gardner said Thursday.

Fellow Republican Sen. Randy Gardner of Bowling Green and Rep. William Hartnett of Mansfield, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, confirmed the agreement.

"We came to the conclusion it deserves more time and focus before any changes are made in student population counts," Randy Gardner said.

Lawmakers said the compromise will come during a joint House-Senate committee scheduled to meet Friday. The committee is working out differences in a bill bringing Ohio regulations in line with the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

Lawmakers adjourned for the summer in late June without passing the bill. The bill failed over disagreements on how many times a year schools should send enrollment counts to the state, which affects how much state funding schools get.

Both Gardners said it was better to leave such funding changes to Gov. Bob Taft's committee reviewing the way Ohio pays for schools. The committee is scheduled to begin work later this year.

That issue is separate from the bill's primary purpose to meet federal education standards.

The U.S. Department of Education said it would keep part or all of Ohio's share of Title I money, or $403 million, if the state's plan to improve student achievement is not in place before the 2003-2004 school year begins.

The federal government approved Ohio's plan in January on the condition that the state make the appropriate changes to state laws to implement the system by the start of the school year.

Robert Gardner said he has asked the federal Education Department to consider releasing the money based on Friday's expected approval of the bill by the joint committee. Passage by the full House and Senate would come in September.

"I'm hoping if we have an agreement in conference committee, we can get the money and get this moving," Gardner said.

But federal education official Ronald Tomalis rejected that option in a letter to Gardner and Rep. John Schlichter on Wednesday.

If lawmakers waited until September, the government would still consider the state out of compliance and would withhold the money, Tomalis said.

Meanwhile, without a new Ohio law, the state Department of Education cannot issue the annual report cards on 4,000 public schools before school starts.

"We're in a holding pattern," said Mitchell Chester, the department's assistant superintendent for policy development.

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