CLEVELAND — Across Northeast Ohio, population shifts from older neighborhoods to the suburbs could mean the closing, merger or consolidation of about one in six schools operated by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.
But in Cleveland proper, Catholic schools have found a guardian angel in state taxpayers, who provided more than $16 million in tuition vouchers for more than 5,500 city children to attend parochial schools this past school year.
Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Cleveland voucher program as a way to assist poor children in failing schools, the once-controversial program has found bipartisan safe harbor in the state budget.
Budget proposals from Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled legislature all provided money to continue the 11-year-old initiative, which gives parents a taxpayer-supported voucher to spend toward tuition at participating private schools.
Even as the Cleveland diocese evaluates its 231 parishes with an eye toward closing or merging about 20 percent of them, the voucher program is supporting some of its 144 schools, including 34 located in Cleveland, which was ranked the poorest big city in America according to Census data.
At Holy Name Elementary in Cleveland’s South Broadway neighborhood, more than 90 percent of students receive vouchers. In at least seven other Catholic elementary schools, more than 80 percent of the students use public dollars to attend.
“Catholic schools are closing by the dozens in large cities all over the country,” said Clint Bolick, director of constitutional litigation at the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank based in Phoenix. “That’s a tragedy for low-income kids. To the extent that vouchers have helped Catholic schools stay open in Cleveland and Milwaukee and elsewhere, that’s a godsend for children.”
But Bolick dismisses the notion that the voucher program is a subsidy for Catholic schools. The schools actually took on more of a financial burden by accepting voucher students and covering the full cost of educating them, he said.
Margaret Lyons, superintendent of the Cleveland diocese’s schools, has a similar view. She declined to be interviewed but responded in writing to questions from a reporter.
“Vouchers have little impact except in so far as they support enrollment,” she wrote. “Positive enrollments stabilize a school.
However, vouchers do not cover the costs, so schools still need to find resources to supplement vouchers.”
Critics of school vouchers contend the program — especially in concert with the newer charter school program — drains badly needed money from Cleveland public schools. Money to support the program comes from a state fund aimed at aiding high-poverty districts.
Last year, about 30 percent of Cleveland students — 11,500 in charter schools and 12,000 in Catholic and other schools — attended private schools while the public system enrolled about 53,000.
Vouchers recast the urban school problem as a consumer challenge in which discerning parents are rewarded for “escaping” the system, rather than for working together to improve it, said Jan Resseger, minister for public education for the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ.
“The Cleveland voucher program and the newer charter program have made it harder for us to understand our collective obligation across the region to ensure opportunity for society’s most vulnerable children,”
But the voucher program remains popular with parents who receive the assistance. Tony Kaloger, a Cleveland father who currently has one child in school on a voucher, said his only disappointment is that the program hasn’t expanded more since the 2002 court ruling.
Kaloger said all parents should be able to choose where their children go to school. That’s especially true for parents in Cleveland, where more than 1,000 seniors failed to graduate this spring because they flunked one or more parts of a state graduation test, he said.
“We’re disappointed in the fact that it hasn’t grown and been made available to more people,” Kaloger said. “For us, personally, it worked out fine. But being an advocate for the program, your hope is that it will also help others.”
Vouchers have been expanded statewide, but the ones outside Cleveland are limited to children attending low-performing public schools. That means suburban Catholic schools in communities with a high-functioning public system won’t be able to share in the extra enrollment that vouchers bring.
In Cleveland’s Catholic schools, half the children are non-Catholic.
Will providing vouchers for them while closing suburban parish schools create tension among Catholic parishioners?
“Tension isn’t the word I would use,” said Lyons, the diocese’s superintendent. “Catholics are taught they are responsible for those who are less fortunate. That being said, when financial crunches become personal, certainly, parents may sense a loss.”
By Scott Stephens
Religion News Service