School Choice & Charters

Cleveland Voucher Aid No Panacea For Hard-Pressed Catholic Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 18, 2003 5 min read
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Acknowledging that vouchers have hardly been a fiscal windfall for the Cleveland private schools that accept them, the Ohio legislature may alter the city’s state-enacted program of tuition aid to make it easier for schools that receive vouchers to stay afloat financially.

But the changes, if approved, will be too late for three Roman Catholic schools in Cleveland that accepted the vouchers and have closed within the past year.

Late last week, a legislative conference committee was fine- tuning a state budget bill that included a plan to raise from $2,500 to $3,000 the amount that private schools can receive per student through the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, as the voucher plan is officially known.

Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, must sign a budget by the end of this month.

The bill would also clarify that participating schools may charge parents in higher income brackets—specifically, more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or an income of more than $36,800 for a family of four— the difference between what the vouchers cover and the school’s tuition. That’s a matter that the current law doesn’t address directly.

Vouchers Upheld

A year ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Cleveland’s voucher program, which had been challenged because of its inclusion of religious schools. (“The Voucher Decision: Charting the New Landscape of School Choice,” July 10, 2002.) Critics have argued that the vouchers in Cleveland—as well as similar programs in Milwaukee and Florida—provide an unfair financial boost to participating private schools. After all, they say, the private schools receive public money that they otherwise wouldn’t have received.

But in Cleveland, at least, vouchers have not been a financial boon to private schools, Catholic educators and Ohio education leaders say. They argue, in fact, that the program—while beneficial to the parents who receive the tuition help for their children—has been a net drain on the resources of voucher schools and the Roman Catholic parishes that run them.

“We surely don’t see it as a financial benefit,” said Tim V. Luckhaupt, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, which lobbied the state legislature to make the changes in the pending budget bill. Thirty-three of the 49 private schools in Cleveland that receive vouchers are Catholic.

Catholic schools participate in the Cleveland voucher program, which was implemented in the 1996-1997 school year, to fulfill a mission of providing poor, minority children an alternative to the public schools, Mr. Luckhaupt said.

Saundra D. Berry, the director of the voucher program for the Ohio department of education, agreed that vouchers don’t help Cleveland private schools stay financially solvent. “We don’t give them enough money to operate,” she said. “They are really on shoestring budgets and raising monies in other ways to supplement these scholarships.”

Catholic school leaders fault the design of the Cleveland program. They note that the maximum amount of money that private schools can receive through each voucher—$2,500—has remained the same since the program’s inception, while the cost of educating students has risen dramatically.

The Cleveland program provides low-income parents with a voucher worth a maximum of $2,250 per child. Schools can collect from parents an additional $250, or 10 percent of the value of the voucher. The law doesn’t permit private schools to collect more than $250 from parents whose income is $36,800 or less for a family of four. But it doesn’t spell out what they should do for parents with incomes higher than that. Low- income families get first priority for the vouchers but if they accept vouchers and then don’t use them, the state gives those vouchers to higher- income families on a first-come, first-served basis, regardless of the income of the family.

“The [voucher] amount needs to be increased,” said Jeanette R. Polomsky, the principal of St. Vitus School in Cleveland, which shut down on June 5 after 101 years in operation, despite having participated in the voucher program.

“If a student is sitting at a public school desk, he or she is worth $5,000. As soon as they walk into my school, they are worth $2,500,” she said.

Eighty-five percent of St. Vitus’ 195 students were voucher recipients.

Annual tuition for the school was $2,700, while the estimated cost of educating each child was $3,700. Ms. Polomsky, who was the principal at St. Vitus for 13 years, explained that the St. Vitus church had traditionally paid for the difference between tuition and the cost of education per pupil, but could no longer do so.

It didn’t help, though, she said, that the voucher legislation doesn’t permit the school to collect from parents even the $200 difference between the amount of the voucher and tuition.

Two other Catholic schools in Cleveland, Blessed Sacrament and Holy Redeemer, each of which had more than 60 percent of its students receiving vouchers, closed at the end of the 2001-02 school year. Blessed Sacrament ceased operation because of declining enrollment, and Holy Redeemer closed because of both declining enrollment and financial difficulties, according to Mary Lou Toler, the director of special projects for the office of Catholic education for the Diocese of Cleveland.

Money Matters

If there is any doubt about how much of a difference the monetary value of a voucher makes, at least one voucher advocate points to Milwaukee, where private schools can receive state-financed vouchers worth up to $5,783 per student.

The Milwaukee program, which is similar to the one in Cleveland, was enacted by the Wisconsin legislature and implemented in the 1990-91 school year.

None of the Catholic schools participating in the Milwaukee program has closed since beginning to receive the vouchers, according to Maureen Gallagher, the director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

“If anything, we’re building on to our schools to hold more ‘choice’ kids,” Ms. Gallagher said, “either through additions or by tearing down schools to build others.”

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