Is it right for public tax dollars to be used to fund private education?
That was the issue discussed Thursday as a panel where four local school leaders discussed the accountability and transparency requirements of public and private schools.
The League of Women Voters of Bowling Green hosted the event, which covered state funding for local public and private schools, transportation of private school students and the transparency that is required of public schools but not of private schools.
The Ohio Constitution guarantees public funding for public education, said Janet Parks, league president.
The league has for years advocated education issues and has opposed public funding for private education, she said.
Vouchers for private schools would be expanded if the Backpack Bill passes in the state legislature. Ohio House Bill 11 is currently in committee, but if passed as it is written, it would cost more than $1.1 billion a year.
Unlike the EdChoice vouchers, which low-income families living in poorly performing school districts use to pay for private education, the Backpack Bill would provide all eligible students taxpayer-funded scholarships that go wherever they go.
“This is not all about escaping ‘failing’ schools,” said Perrysburg Schools Superintendent Tom Hosler.
“The Backpack Bill is every student gets a specific dollar amount: $5,500 for elementary students and $7,500 for high school students,” he said. “And they would get to go to any school they would like.”
Hosler was a member of the panel along with Bowling Green City Schools Treasurer Cathy Schuller; Adam Koch, who is a former Otsego Local Schools superintendent and now treasurer at Sylvania City Schools; and Springfield Local Schools Superintendent Matt Geha.
Hosler said this could be construed as another entitlement program created by the state.
He said that his parents sent two of their three children to private schools, but never thought to ask their neighbors across the street to pay for it.
‘But with today’s program, that is what they are proposing will happen,” he said.
Hosler, who has been with Perrysburg for 17 years, spent the first half of the hour-long program explaining how vouchers send public funds to private schools.
“They have been woven into the fabric of Ohio education,” he said. “It’s something that has been around for some time.”
There are three education funding models in the state: traditional public schools, public charter schools and private schools.
There are differences between the three when it comes to transportation, teacher licensing, identifying students with special needs, public records and state report cards, Hosler said.
Traditional schools have to provide for all those areas. Private schools do not. Charter schools have to account for public funds but do not have to educate a child with special needs.
The average amount of state funding for the seven public schools in the Northern Lakes League is $4,069.
The average state funding going to the eight Lucas County private schools is $4,562, Hosler said.
Ohio law requires transportation for public school students, but also requires the public schools to transport non-public students who attend a school within 30 minutes of their home district.
There are more than 75 schools within a 30-minute radius of Perrysburg, and the district currently buses students to 19 non-Perrysburg schools each day, Hosler said.
The cost of the driver, gas, wear and tear on the buses all are absorbed by Perrysburg.
“This law was originally passed in 1965,” Hosler said. “This law hasn’t caught up with the responsibility that we have.”
There should be a leveling of the playing field: Private schools should accept all students, including those with special needs, they should transport their own students, they should undergo state audits of their public funds, and their governance should be transparent.
‘I don’t think the general public knows exactly where and how much funds are going to private schools,” Koch said.
Schuller said public schools have to show accountability, both financially and economically.
“We have to account for every penny,” she said.
If a school takes public dollars, it should show how those funds are being used, Hosler said.
“We just want a fair and equitable funding model,” Koch said. “We’re worried about the funding shortfall that could happen with state dollars flowing to public and private and the impact that’s going to have on our community.
There are three publicly funded education models, and each should be treated equally, Geha said.
“Your public schools accept every single beautiful child,” he said. “Your public school will service a child for whatever they need, whatever challenge they have.”
Lori Reffert, who is Perrysburg Board of Education member, said that the Backpack Bill was not fair.
“Public schools have to take every single student. Private school don’t. Until we’re all on the same playing field, it’s like comparing apples to oranges,” she said.
Parks said most people don’t know how school funding is determined, “and the most disappointing part is legislators don’t know either.”
She said the discussion will be posted on the league’s website in the next week.
“If you’re like me, you need to listen to it one more time,” she said.