Saturday, October 15th, 2011
By Shelley Grieshop
Catholic schools may benefit from voucher program proposal
  A proposed school voucher program may revive financially struggling Catholic schools but put a squeeze on public school funding.
Ohio House Bill 136, called the Parental Choice and Taxpayer Savings scholarship program (PACT), would provide state funding to income-eligible families seeking to enroll children in private schools. Students already attending private schools would be eligible for the vouchers in the future.
If the bill passes, families with an annual household income less than $95,000 would qualify for yearly funds ranging from $2,313 to $4,626 per student for private school tuition. A similar state program already in place, EdChoice, provides funding only for families living in a school district that is under performing.
The PACT plan also would establish an education savings account for students whose voucher exceeds tuition and fees and allow the money to be used for future education costs. However, bill sponsor Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said changes are still being made to the legislation and that portion of the legislation may get cut.
HB 136 recently was passed by the House education committee. Huffman said the legislation could be finalized by the end of the year.
Public school officials believe PACT unfairly subsidizes private schools and drains critical dollars from the public districts where the majority of students attend. If a student leaves a public school, the thousands of dollars the district nets per pupil from the state flows to the new school.
Rich Seas, superintendent of Coldwater schools, said HB 136 eliminates accountability. Private schools aren't monitored for performance in the same way public schools are, he said. They don't have to follow certain requirements such as standards for hiring highly qualified teachers.
"Vouchers will eliminate accountability," Rich Seas, superintendent of Coldwater schools, said. "I think our legislators need to do their homework ... This is taxpayer money."
Seas, a former parochial teacher in Kettering, pointed out that private schools can pick and choose the students they want to enroll.
"In public education, we're here to educate them all," he said.
St. Marys City Schools Board of Education on Wednesday approved a resolution stating it would oppose "any legislation that seeks to transfer public dollars to support private education." The resolution noted that PACT program would take additional funding away from "already struggling public schools."
Officials at Immaculate Conception (IC) Catholic School in
Celina say HB 136 could be the answer to their prayers.
"It obviously could be a very good thing for us," IC Principal Polly Muhlenkamp said.
More than a year and a half ago, the school announced plans to close if finances didn't improve. Expenses were more than double the revenue received, and church funds were being tapped to fill the gap. A fundraising campaign was initiated and has been successful, Muhlenkamp said.
"I think we're doing much better, but we have to be somewhat conscientious. More enrollment would help us," she said.
Enrollment this year is 117 - two students less than last year - for kindergarten through sixth grade. Muhlenkamp said the school has extra space and could accept about 60 new students without hiring additional staff.
IC's tuition fees are $4,152 per child for parishioners and $4,743 for non-parishioners.
The only other private schools in the area are Holy Rosary and Grand Lake Christian, both in St. Marys. The Christian school is a non-chartered school, meaning it does not accept state funding and could not participate in the PACT program.
IC school receives about $600 per student each year from the state, Muhlenkamp said. The money is used to buy supplies for the students and pay salaries for several public school staff members who serve at the school, she explained.
Muhlenkamp said the school does not give proficiency tests like public schools. However, it uses the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to determine the effectiveness of its teaching. She admits the school does not follow the same mandates as public schools, but it is accountable.
"We're accountable to the diocese (Cincinnati Archdiocese)," she explained. "It balances out."
Muhlenkamp said the PACT program has been discussed by IC church officials, but it's not clear if the parish would choose to participate.
"We don't want to hurt the public schools," she said. "I think we'd definitely be interested, if there's not a lot of negatives."
Huffman said he understands why public schools are against the bill but noted the issue isn't about them.
"The focus is on the students and their parents and their right to choose," he said.
He doesn't envision flocks of students leaving public schools for private ones, especially in Mercer and Auglaize counties where quality public education exists, he said.
"Even where schools are really bad, only about 5 percent of students take advantage of these programs," he said.
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