School choice programs can — but don’t always — create extra regulations for private schools

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

St. Peter Claver Latin School for Boys opened in 2001 to serve boys living in poverty in Cincinnati. About four years ago, the K-8 school began accepting EdChoice scholarships, Ohio’s publicly-funded school choice program.

“It’s been really good, because we’re such a small school … we’ve been able to help boys in the inner city get a really great K to 8 education and then go on to private schools in almost every case for high school,” Headmaster Barry Williams said.

REGULATIONS: Students in Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship program are required to take a standardized test each year. At St. Peter Claver, all students take the test so nobody has to know who’s on the scholarship.

About 30 students attend the school, and nearly all come from families living at or below the federal poverty line. Nine students are on the EdChoice scholarship, and most of the others are on private scholarships. Only one student’s family pays full tuition.

“We raise money from private donations mostly, so I’ve been able to get folks to contribute to tuition, which has been a godsend, but it’s getting tougher,” Williams said.

The EdChoice program, he said, has helped them serve more students when donations are harder to come by.

Williams said the school has had to file additional paperwork since joining EdChoice, but he doesn’t mind.

“It’s fine. Sometimes the rules get complex, like anything else with government. Enrollment periods are kind of difficult because so many parents wait till the last minute. They say ‘Oh, gosh, it’s July. I need to get my kids in school,’ and then it’s too late for EdChoice money, but that’s the only problem,” he said. “We have to keep the paperwork straight, but it’s not that bad. There are other programs that are harder.”

EdChoice students are required to take a state standardized test, but Williams said he has all the students take it so they don’t have to know who’s on the public scholarship and who isn’t.

“I don’t want anyone to be labeled,” he said. “I’m big on that on a personal basis.”

School choice supporters differ in what kinds of regulations — if any — they say private schools ought to have as a condition of participating in a private school choice program.

Those regulations could be testing requirements for students in the program, financial reporting, curriculum restrictions, or myriad other regulations. In Florida’s legislature this spring, for example, lawmakers debated whether to require students on the state’s tax credit scholarship program to take a state test.

About 62 percent of regulations on private schools preceded the school choice program, according to a study by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis-based group that works to spread the word about school choice. Additional regulations varied widely from state to state, and within states, from program to program, said Drew Catt, research analyst for the Friedman Foundation and study author.

In Ohio, for example, private schools must be chartered to participate in the EdChoice program. Almost all private schools are chartered because without the designation, the state won’t recognize graduates’ diplomas.

Some regulations are more onerous than others, Catt said.

“I analyzed everything from the viewpoint of a private school and its administration, but having said that, different school leaders have different views on what is onerous — filling out 10 different forms or taking a full day for testing?” he said.

Voucher programs, or publicly funded scholarships, tend to put more regulations on private schools than do tax-credit scholarship programs, where scholarships are funded through private donations for which donors can receive tax credits.

Catt said he hopes lawmakers and school choice advocates will look at the regulations private schools already face when considering school choice legislation.

“If we’re looking at a specific state and the state already has fairly heavy requirements on all private schools in the state, new requirements may not actually be necessary,” Catt said.

At St. Peter Claver, Williams said he has high hopes for his students. Many of them go on to top private high schools, he said, and two are in a boarding school in St. Louis.

“They didn’t even know where St. Louis was,” Williams said.

When one of them returned to visit the school, “he looked as preppy as all the rich kids that go to the school. It was pretty cute. He said, ‘You were right. I can do well in math.’ And I said, ‘I always told you you could.’ He’s got it now.”

“At some point in their life, I want them to get out of here, get a regular job, wherever it may be, in another city preferably,” he said. “I love Cincinnati. I’m a native Cincinnatian. But go someplace else. Get a life, know who you are, then give back when you’re 30, after you’ve got things going and you’re established as a confident human being and your poverty is part of what made you a stronger person, not what is keeping you down.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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