Four Toledo Catholic elementary schools doubled their tuition over last year, putting the "cost of education" just under the maximum amount that the state will pay in taxpayer money for students coming from failing public schools.
The sharp increases have prompted the top Toledo Public Schools official to raise an eyebrow and ask if the Catholic schools are fleecing the system or price-gouging the state.
"I think the Catholic schools were subsidized for years by the parishes, but now they are being subsidized by the taxpayers," said TPS Superintendent John Foley.
"As we are struggling financially, this is another redirec-tion of public money."
Tuition last year at Pope John Paul II Elementary on Lagrange Street was $1,800 and the cost will officially increase to $4,019 in the fall. But the Toledo Diocese says the state would be the only one paying that high a cost because parents at those schools are typically low-income and would be given their own tuition subsidies.
The diocese thinks the state should foot the bill under Ohio's controversial voucher program, available to students attending a public school that has been rated in academic emergency or academic watch for two of the last three years. It pays up to $4,250 for elementary school and $5,000 for high school.
Three other Toledo Catholic schools - Queen of Apostles, Rosary Cathedral, and St. Charles Borromeo - will also collect $4,019 from taxpayers through Ohio's voucher program, while parents without vouchers will pay a greatly reduced cost.
Rosary Cathedral had 55 students with vouchers last year and has 117 applications from students wanting the state money for 2007-08. That is more than any other school in the diocese.
Catholic school officials are calling the higher price the "cost of education" rather than tuition.
Jack Altenburger, superintendent of schools for the Toledo Catholic Diocese, admits that "probably no parents at those schools" will pay the full tuition.
Parents without a voucher for their child are eligible to apply for a reduction, bringing the Catholic school tuition into the $2,000 range.
"Tuition never pays the whole cost and we are not making money on the schools," Mr. Altenburger said.
"All of our schools are subsidized by parishes and fund-raisers but it's particularly difficult in the central city to get money from parishes."
He added: "This is an attempt quite frankly to keep our mission alive in the central city and we are not price-gouging at all. This is a way we can offer these families a religious-based education."
Kimberly Murnieks, Ohio Department of Education's executive director of school finance, said the Toledo Diocese will have to extend the same subsidies to voucher-funded students.
"We will look into any jumps [in tuition] that are kind of large," Ms. Murnieks said. "The way the program rules are written, a school cannot charge the state a different tuition level than they would otherwise charge a family if the student was not in Ed Choice."
Sally Oberski, diocese spokesman, said the diocese isn't doing anything wrong by increasing the cost and collecting vouchers.
"This year we are taking advantage of the full amount we can get," Ms. Oberski said. "Last year, that didn't happen and we had to subsidize the rest of the cost."
The urban school districts in Ohio, including TPS, have rallied against the voucher program, which is also called the Educational Choice Scholarship program.
At the same time, many Catholic and other private schools marketed the vouchers throughout the school year, hoping it would increase their enrollment.
Like Toledo Public and the rest of the state's urban school systems, the local Catholic schools have lost students to charter schools and closed schools the last few years.
Mr. Altenburger said enrollment in the diocese's elementary schools declines about 2 percent to 3 percent annually.
St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School in North Toledo, which was spared by Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair two years ago from being shut down, was closed earlier this month because of declining enrollment.
Lawmakers in Columbus thwarted Gov. Ted Strickland's attempt to kill the statewide voucher program. It will apparently survive because the state budget contains no language on target with that program. The dollars that fund it are intermixed with other school funds, so there's no budget line-item that the governor can strike.
There were 2,829 vouchers awarded statewide for 2006-07 out of 14,000 available.
The Ohio Department of Education said it received nearly 8,000 voucher applications by the April 20 deadline for the 2007-08 school year.
Mr. Foley said 557 of those applications were from students in the Toledo School district. Of those, just over 100 were attending a charter school during the just-completed academic year.
The publicly funded, privately operated charter schools lured 6,464 TPS students this year and TPS officials have feared their enrollment will plummet even more with the introduction of vouchers in the fall of 2005.
Each lost student translates into less money for the cash-strapped school system that must cut nearly $12 million to balance its 2007-08 budget.
Ms. Murnieks also said the state is reviewing the nearly 8,000 applications and will disqualify students who are not eligible. School districts can flag students who transferred into one of the eligible schools late in the year just to get a voucher for the following academic year.
The eligible Toledo schools are Cherry, Chase, Fulton, Garfield, Nathan Hale, Lagrange, Lincoln Academy for Boys, Newbury, Pickett, Raymer, Reynolds, and Sherman elementary schools; Jones, Leverette, McTigue, and Robinson junior high schools, and Scott, Woodward, and Libbey high schools.
Elsewhere in northwest Ohio, there are six eligible schools in Lima - Freedom, Liberty, and Unity elementary schools; Lima North Middle School, Lima South Middle School, and Lima High School - and two in Sandusky - Hancock Elementary and Mills Elementary.
"We have heard there are issues in some schools and in some districts, and we want to gather data to determine the extent of this issue," Ms. Murnieks said.
Francine Lawrence, president of the Toledo Public Schools teachers' union, said in March that a handful of parents had pulled their children out of their schools and enrolled them at one of the academically struggling schools for a chance to get a voucher.
Contact Ignazio Messina at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6171.