Saturday, July 19, 2003

Lawmakers OK compromise on student-tally proposal

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Lawmakers arguing over how to count schoolchildren have settled their differences and are hoping the federal government agrees the compromise is enough to preserve $400 million in U.S. Department of Education aid.

A joint legislative committee on Friday scrapped a plan to count children twice a year, in October and March.

The twice-a-year proposal had been tucked into an unrelated education bill last month bringing Ohio regulations in line with the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. The committee on Friday unanimously approved the bill without the change.

The disagreement over how many times a year schools should send enrollment counts to the state - a process that affects school funding - stalled the bill, which the federal government wanted passed by the start of the next school year.

The delay is threatening $403 million in federal funds tied to the state's ability to comply with the federal law by the beginning of the school year. The state received about $100 million in July and normally gets the rest in the fall, said J.C. Benton, Ohio Department of Education spokesman.

Mindful of the lost revenue, committee members agreed to eliminate the October-March proposal and refer it instead to Gov. Bob Taft's school funding commission. The commission is expected to begin work later this year on ways to change how Ohio funds schools.

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

Robert Gardner said he has asked the federal Education Department to consider releasing the money based on Friday's approval of the bill by the joint committee. Otherwise, the full House and Senate would have to conduct an emergency session before they return in September.

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.

Gardner said Friday he remains hopeful that federal officials would reconsider.

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

"We're in a holding pattern," said Mitchell Chester, a department assistant superintendent.

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