Vouchers’ Role Grows in Dayton’s Catholic Schools

Published November 21, 2009

Kelly Mornhinweg believes in blending a Christian environment and values with traditional lessons in reading, writing, math, and other courses.

That’s why she sends her five children to Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Elementary School and Chaminade Julienne High School in downtown Dayton, Ohio.

But with tuition of at least $5,000 per child, Mornhinweg said a Christian education for her children wouldn’t be possible without financial aid from the schools and state Educational Choice Scholarships, commonly called vouchers.

“Private schools are expensive, and if it weren’t for vouchers, I’d be sunk,” Mornhinweg said.

And without vouchers, which target students in low-performing public schools, Dayton’s Catholic schools might be sunk, too.

On the Line

Of 16 local Catholic schools participating in the state voucher program, all but one are seeing a growing enrollment of voucher students, according to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Catholic School Office and the Ohio Department of Education. At four schools, including Mary Queen of Peace, more than half the students rely on vouchers, which provide up to $5,000 in tuition assistance.

Joe Kamis, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, said it’s a mistaken perception that vouchers are propping up Catholic schools.

The cost of educating a child exceeds the voucher amounts, Kamis noted, so the schools must subsidize those students.

“In a sense, they are keeping some schools viable, but certainly not the majority,” Kamis said.

Still, the voucher program isn’t popular among some Democrats in Columbus, and that could spell trouble for schools that rely heavily on the program.

“If the program would be eliminated and [there were] no more funding, that would affect us immensely,” Kamis said.

Do Vouchers Work?

Advocates promote vouchers as a way out for needy children stuck in troubled schools. But unlike charters, the state hasn’t analyzed the voucher program to see if it’s fulfilling that promise.

“We have no proof that vouchers are working,” said state Rep. Clayton Luckie (D-Dayton), a former Dayton school board member.

Elementary school voucher students take the Ohio Achievement Test like their public school counterparts, said Scott Blake, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education. But measuring the results in a statistically “meaningful way” has been difficult, he said.

Starting next year, the department will provide parents the performance results of their children compared to the results of students in the public schools they otherwise would have attended.

Chad Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio, said the data will be a “huge improvement” for parents and policymakers.

“It’s important in something that’s based on competition and economics that we have good information,” Aldis said.

Fixing Problems

Luckie said several issues need to be addressed.

Though the voucher program should be income-based, Luckie said, it’s currently open to any family in a low-performing district, regardless of income. Also, he and Dayton School Board President Jeffrey Mims Jr. fear some families are “gaming” the system–briefly enrolling their children in a low-rated public school to qualify for vouchers, then withdrawing them when the grant notice arrives.

“I believe folks need to have a public school experience before they write off the public school,” Luckie said.

For each student that leaves the district, Mims said, so does a chunk of state funding. But it’s nearly impossible to reduce the district’s expenses by a proportionate amount, he said. And if the student has learning or physical needs a private school can’t address, it becomes the public school’s responsibility and expense.

“There’s always going to be those private and parochial schools, and there should be,” Mims said. “But the primary system that educates children across the nation is the public school. And when neither system has enough resources to address the needs of children, then it puts a disadvantage on all of us.”

No Expansion

Still, the voucher program shouldn’t, and probably won’t, be scrapped, Luckie and Mims believe. Too many children and families are vested. But expanded? Not likely.

Catholic schools took a double hit in this year’s state budget, which reduced maximum voucher awards to 2006-07 levels and cut $59 million in funding to chartered non-public schools, the bulk of which are Catholic.

Kamis and other observers said the voucher program’s future likely depends on the next state budget cycle in 2011 and which party controls the Statehouse at the time. Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who tried to eliminate the program last year, is up for reelection in 2010.

“The governor does not support an expansion of vouchers in Ohio because he believes they are inherently unaccountable and lack in oversight,” said Strickland spokeswoman Amanda Wurst.

‘Great Danger’

Kamis said if Democrats control the Statehouse, the voucher program “is in great danger.”

Local principals pray they survive.

“I am not going to say St. Rita’s wouldn’t be here without them,” said Veronica Murphy, principal of the elementary school in Harrison Township, where 75 percent of the students use vouchers. “But what I do say is we are here to serve the kids who come to us, and we feel like we’re making a difference in their lives.”

Anthony Gottschlich ([email protected]) is a staff writer at the Dayton Daily News, where a previous version of this story appeared. Reprinted with permission.