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Published: Thursday, 9/23/2010

Central Catholic top voucher beneficiary

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Ohio's education-voucher program has been good to Central Catholic High and other faith-based schools in Lucas County.

About one-third of Central's 1,068 students are in the EdChoice program, the most of any school in Lucas County. Under the program, the state pays a student's tuition after he or she transfers from poor-performing public schools on a special list compiled by the state.

Principal Mike Kaucher said the program has kept Central's otherwise falling enrollment stable over the past five years.

"I would argue that any of our six Catholic EdChoice high schools, none of them are at capacity," he said. "It has been an opportunity for some of these families that live in poverty that want to give their child the best education possible."

The state this week released its list of public schools that have performed at a lower academic level for at least two of the three previous school years, the threshold for being assigned EdChoice status.

Toledo had 15 such schools, and for the first time, a school in the Sandusky district was added to the list. Three middle schools in Lima made the list again this year.

No other public school in the Toledo area was on the list.

The Ohio Department of Education also released to The Blade a list of private schools participating in the program and receiving voucher payments. Twenty-five private schools, all faith-based, are participating this year.

Certified charter schools are technically public schools and receive tax dollars from the state based on the number of students who attend. They cannot accept private tuition and are not part of the EdChoice voucher program.

Topping the list of private schools this year was Central Catholic with 355 EdChoice students. Second was Central City Ministry of Toledo Catholic School with 294. Toledo Christian School was third with 137.

St. Clement School and Toledo Islamic Academy had 10 students, the fewest of the schools that participated in Lucas County.

Mr. Kaucher, the Central principal, said the state numbers are off and that his school has 342 students in the program.

Ohio students must enter the EdChoice program as public school transfers from the list of poor-performing schools.

Students at those public schools can apply to be in the program next school year, as long as a participating private school will have them.

The deadline is in February, and the private schools apply to the state on behalf of the students.

The voucher program, launched in 2006, is one manifestation of a long-running public debate on the ideological battlefield of school choice.

The idea behind EdChoice and other voucher-based initiatives is to give students at poor-performing public schools the opportunity to attend a private school by redirecting state tax dollars.

Public school officials, in general, argue voucher programs take tax dollars out of the districts, stress budgets, and hurt the students who stay behind.

They argue that just because some students leave, it doesn't reduce the district's utility bills, for example, or other macroeconomic expenses.

The program, in essence, gives TPS and other public school districts an extra financial incentive to boost performance at the most academically troubled schools.

In Toledo, four schools fell off the EdChoice list this year because they showed enough improvement - East Side Central and McKinley elementary schools, Chase STEM Academy, and DeVeaux Middle.

Libbey High's Humanities Academy would have remained on the list based on test scores, but the high school was closed this year.

Three new TPS schools were added - Glenwood, Keyser, and Westfield elementary schools.

The EdChoice money - $5,000 per high school student and $4,200 per middle and elementary school pupil - is paid out of a public school district's budget.

Toledo Public Schools last school year paid $7.05 million in EdChoice money for 1,320 students, according to district Treasurer Dan Romano. Had the students stayed, that money would have stayed with the district.

"I would rather not lose the students," he said. "If they're leaving, it's for some reason."

He said that the foremost duty of the district is to provide students with a quality education.

"Secondary to that, when a student leaves they do take money with them," he said. "Our ability to balance the budget is dependent on our ability to respond to enrollment changes."

In recent years, TPS has had to close schools because of slumping enrollment, blamed in part on the rise of charter schools and the voucher program.

A drop in TPS enrollment this school year, reported this month, is resulting in more teacher layoffs and the reshuffling of some personnel.

The state nearly hit the 14,000-student maximum authorized by state law for the EdChoice program this school year, according to state officials.

A school voucher group estimates that 85,000 students in 202 Ohio public schools statewide are eligible next school year for the program, based on the latest end-of-grade test results.

Columbus City Schools had the most schools on the list with 47, Cincinnati was second with 30, and Dayton was third with 22. TPS' 15 schools is down from 17 last year.

Central Catholic, which draws much of its student body from the inner city, said enrollment five years ago before the program was launched stood at about 1,018. Today, it stands at 1,068.

Tuition at the school is $7,600, but Mr. Kaucher, the principal, said about 8 in 10 students are on some sort of financial aid, which equals about $2.5 million in tuition.

The school gets $5,000 for each student on the EdChoice program, and the rest of the $7,600 tuition bill is forgiven. But the student's family must come up with $800 in student fees, he said.

The school's operating budget is about $7.5 million, he said.

Some Catholic schools in Lucas County are struggling with enrollment. And the EdChoice program has helped, he said.

But at the same time, he estimates about half of the Central students using EdChoice vouchers this year would have found a way to attend the school anyway.

To attend, a student needs more than a voucher, he said.

A student can't have major discipline problems and needs a solid attendance record and good grades, he said.

An admissions committee reviews applications blind, without knowing if a student might be eligible for the EdChoice program, he said.

"It does allow us to continue that revenue stream," Mr. Kaucher said. "But there is a number of students that we do reject."

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at:

ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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