While the Ohio House and Senate wrangle over how private-school vouchers should work, we’ll review the essentials of the debate and what we think would best serve Ohioans.

Vouchers — public funds given to families to pay for private-school tuition — have been controversial since a pilot program began in Cleveland in 1996, especially because most of the money goes to Catholic and other religious schools.

But the U.S. Supreme Court settled that issue with a 2002 ruling that such programs don’t violate the separation of church and state, so the current debate is over how a voucher program should work. Separate bills passed in the House and the Senate take markedly different approaches, leaving lawmakers in late-night sessions all last week, unable to find a compromise.

Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to step in this week to help resolve the differences.

One issue is whether vouchers should be offered mainly to kids whose assigned public schools are performing poorly or to the lowest-income families, wherever they live. Ohio’s EdChoice scholarship program has since 2005 been based mainly on the "failing school" model, but we think targeting parents’ income is the fairest way to make school choice available to those who need it and are least able to afford it on their own.

The vagaries of Ohio’s school report card system mean that schools’ quality ratings can be erratic and illogical. The very reason lawmakers are in a rush to reform the voucher program is because, under current rules, the number of schools deemed "bad" enough to be voucher-eligible is set to more than double for next school year, from 500-some to more than 1,200, and to include schools from some of the state’s top-performing districts.

Also on the table is whether the money for vouchers should come by transferring it out of the public district from which the child comes — as has been the model for performance-based vouchers — or having the state pay private schools directly, as is done with income-based vouchers.

Fans of the current system say public school districts don’t really lose any money when they have to pay for a voucher, because the state per-pupil aid for that student is simply diverted from the district, which no longer has to educate the child.

But that isn’t strictly true, because while voucher payments are uniform — up to $4,650 per year for grades K-8 and $6,000 for high school — every district gets a different amount of state aid per pupil. In some districts, that state aid amount is arbitrarily capped by Ohio’s arcane school-funding formula — in Columbus’ case, at an average of $3,200 per student.

So every student who gets an EdChoice voucher costs Columbus City Schools $1,450 or $2,800 beyond the state aid it must forgo.

Direct payments by the state would be fairer and more honest.

Regarding eligibility, if a hybrid program — some vouchers based on school performance and some based on income — can resolve the House/Senate impasse, it’s worth considering. But the income threshold should be lower than 300% of the poverty level, which is part of the Senate bill.

Lawmakers gave themselves extra time to solve this puzzle by delaying the voucher application period from Feb. 1 to April 1. They shouldn’t delay further; Ohio families and school districts need to make plans for next year.

— The Columbus Dispatch