Private schools gain in quest to help disabled students
Denise Smith Amos reports:
Just three months in existence, a new state scholarship program for disabled students is angering some Greater Cincinnati school officials, who say their districts are forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars on private school tuition for students who have never attended public schools.
“It’s a confiscation of public funds taken for private purposes,” said Robert Selhorst, an assistant superintendent at Oak Hills Schools, which has lost more than $427,000 so far this year to the program, even though only two of its 52 scholarship recipients ever attended an Oak Hills school.
The Jon Peterson Special Needs scholarships allow the state to take some of the money it would have sent to a public school district to educate a special needs student, and instead give it to a private school when the student is transferred.
Proponents say the parents of those students require more educational choices, regardless of whether their kids attend public or private school.
“No one school meets the needs of every student, particularly children with disabilities,” said Larry Keough, associate director for education with the Catholic Conference of Ohio and parent of two children with disabilities.
The program, which started this school year, also balances out the educational costs parents of special needs children have to pay, he said.
“Let’s remember that the parents who send their children to nonpublic schools pay local, state and federal taxes and pay tuition at a nonpublic school. There ought to be a sense of social justice and some benefit for them.”
But district leaders say they are not losing students to the scholarship. Just money.
The program has gone farther than they expected because most of the money is not funding students who switched from public to private schools. Instead, the majority of the money is paying for students who already attend private schools and plan to stay put.
“Bottom line for us: The more the state is able to ‘find’ new revenue for private schools, the less they seem to have to allocate to public schools,” said Tracey Carson, Mason Schools spokeswoman.
Mason has lost more than $60,000 so far to the program, she said. Meanwhile, Ohio has cut what its sends her district for overall school operations by about $8 million compared to five years ago.
“This just means that public schools are forced to go to their local voters more often and for larger amounts,” she said.
Thursday was the deadline for the scholarship’s second round of applications. In total, 538 Ohio students have applied for scholarships and are expected to begin using them in January.
That’s in addition to the 1,583 students receiving the scholarships for this school year after applying for them last winter and spring.
To qualify, a student doesn’t need to attend a public school, and their parents don’t have to show financial need.
The Peterson scholarship works like a voucher, funding private education for any student with a disability. The money for each scholarship is deducted from the total education funding the state sends to each district. (State aid to schools varies based on a variety of factors, including each district’s ability to charge local residents property taxes.)
Dozens of parents testified in Columbus in recent years about the need for such a program, beyond Ohio’s existing autism scholarship that pays a total of $20,000 each year. Legislators created the Peterson scholarship to give parents recourse if their public school is not doing enough for their special needs children.
But districts throughout Greater Cincinnati say their existing student populations are losing because they have less to spend to educate them.
Milford, for instance, will spend nearly $100,000 on 14 scholarship recipients – only one of whom ever attended a Milford school.
Cincinnati Public had 199 scholarship applicants and will spend about $1.2 million educating them in private settings, even though only 15 ever attended a CPS school, and Winton Woods expects to lose at least $202,000 for its 22 scholarship recipients, even though only one of them is switching from a Winton Woods school.
Parents apply for the scholarship through the private school they plan to use – or, in most cases, where they are already sending their children. The public school district in which they live must write an “individual education plan” (an IEP) that lists what the student’s educational and other needs are.
The districts, however, say they have never evaluated many of these students and must create an IEP for that student and his or her special needs. Ray Lyttle, Ross schools’ director of personnel/student services, said that costs money.
“The public schools do all the evaluations, write and monitor the IEPs. The public school gets no funding for this,” he said. “The amount received by the provider school for a specific disability area is higher than what the public school would receive if the student were attending their home school district.”
Northwest Schools, for instance, had $675,000 in scholarship money deducted from its state aid for a total of 83 students – none of whom had attended a Northwest school.
State officials acknowledge that the scholarship has cost districts more than many had anticipated, but state reimbursements are coming in December, which should reduce some of that burden, said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio education department.
He didn’t have specific figures or projections, saying the reimbursements depend on a variety of factors, including a district’s property wealth.
Lou Blessing, Republican speaker pro tem of the Ohio House, said legislators did not intend for districts to be harmed by this program. He said he was surprised that few of the voucher recipients are students who switched from public schools.
He said he’s confident the legislature will come up with a way to fix these financial problems next year.
But Keough said the legislature should wait and give the program time. The financial impact on districts shouldn’t be the main determinant for changing the Peterson program, he said.
“We need to look at this thing from the perspective of what is in the best interest of children,” he said.
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