WHOSE CHOICE? / Third in a four-part series



Published Tuesday, December 14, 1999



 



Voucher system falls far short of goals


Intended to benefit underserved public-school kids, program has become a blessing for Catholic institutions

   



By Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard



Beacon Journal staff writers



 



   Let's help Cleveland children escape a failing public school system. That was the mission of the nation's most ambitious school voucher experiment, launched late in 1995 by then-Gov. George Voinovich.

    Let's "offer Cleveland school district parents -- and particularly low-income families -- new opportunities to choose a public or nonpublic school for their child. . . ," he said.

    After three years of schooling, however, the voucher program has instead become a subsidy to the Roman Catholic Church, and there are serious questions as to whether Cleveland schoolchildren have benefited, according to an Akron Beacon Journal analysis of data and records.

    By the end of the last school year, Cleveland's Catholic schools were educating fewer children than before the arrival of vouchers but receiving an additional $3.3 million in state tax money, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education.

    In fact, rather than bring about a shift in children from public to private schools, the voucher program merely slowed an exodus from Cleveland's Catholic schools to the city's public schools.

    To get the voucher experiment under way, Voinovich promised taxpayer dollars to Catholic schools in exchange for the silence of the state's Catholic bishops on the pending legislation that would create the program. Those taxpayer dollars would, among other things, help many Catholic schools in Cleveland get wired to the Internet long before nearby city schools.

    Voinovich's voucher experiment also has become entwined in a constitutional debate: One federal judge ruled the so-called Cleveland Program furthers religion -- and that religion is predominantly Catholicism.

    It's no wonder, then, that Voinovich, now a U.S. senator, was honored last February by the National Catholic Education Association for his significant contributions to private schools during his eight years as governor of Ohio.

    The Catholic Conference of Ohio and the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland in particular won tremendous school aid from the state during the Voinovich years -- sometimes ahead of poorly funded public schools, according to the former governor's records now archived at Ohio University.

    What prompted Voinovich's commitment to parochial schools over public education is unclear. One explanation of his motivation, as ventured by longtime Voinovich press aide Mike Dawson, is that "he felt and feels very strongly that the Catholic schools particularly in our big cities have been a very positive force for education for thousands of Ohio schoolchildren."

    "If it had not been for the Catholic school system, the cities would have lost even more population than they lost," Dawson said.

    But the fact that Catholics comprise 21 percent of the electorate and have a powerful lobbying force in Columbus backed by bishops also may play a role. And Voinovich made a concerted effort to keep the bishops happy, even at the expense of Ohio's public-school children.

    He even boasted about it.

    "In many districts in the state, I suspect the non-public schools will be receiving a much greater increase in terms of state reimbursement than some public schools," he wrote to the church bishops in 1993 after passage of a new state budget that year.

    After three more years of solid increases to private schools -- most of which were requested by the Catholic Conference -- he announced at the 1996 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors that Ohio was No. 1 in the nation in providing aid to children in private schools.

    Voinovich's remarks came at the same time a coalition of more than 500 school districts was in court saying that 1.8 million public-school children were relegated to a system that was unfairly, inadequately and unconstitutionally funded. Separate studies showed Ohio school facilities to be the worst in the nation, and the state ranked near the bottom for classroom technology.

    The voucher program, at $11.2 million this year, is a significant addition to the $140 million the state provides to private schools and is especially important to the Cleveland Diocese -- which operates Catholic schools over much of northern Ohio, including those in Cleveland that are part of the voucher experiment.

    Today, one in three children sitting in a K-5 Catholic school in Cleveland is using a state voucher, according to state data. State officials said they are unable to easily discern how many of the children using vouchers came from public schools.

    In the last school year, about 2,400 Catholic-school children each received about $1,936 in tax money to attend kindergarten through the fifth grade. That is about $4.7 million in state aid, of which $3.2 million is voucher money.

    If the goal was to allow children to escape the public schools, then the assumption would be that Catholic enrollment should have risen as children fled the public schools, said Alex Molnar, a University of Wisconsin researcher and critic of vouchers.

    Instead, Catholic school enrollment fell by about 220 children, according to data provided by the Ohio Department of Education.

    Voinovich spokesman Dawson said the former governor would not comment about those numbers.

    A year ago, Ohio voters sent Voinovich on to the U.S. Senate. He left behind a public school system that state courts continue to say is unconstitutionally funded and a voucher program whosealleged shortcomings are likely to become a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.

    The nation's highest court surprised both sides when it declined to consider the constitutionality of a Milwaukee voucher program in 1998. Yesterday, the court also declined to decide on the constitutionality of public- vs. private-school funding in Vermont. Instead, the justices are showing interest in Cleveland as the pivotal case.

    They already intervened in a decision by Cleveland U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., who attempted to block any new voucher enrollment this year while he considers the constitutionality of the program. The high court in November lifted his order.

    Oliver warned in August that he believes the program furthers religion, a violation of the First Amendment, and that the participating schools are overwhelmingly religious.

    "That means that parents cannot make an educational choice without regard to whether the school is parochial or not. Therefore, the Cleveland Program has the primary effect of advancing religion," he said.

    Indeed, of the 4,000 students receiving vouchers last school year, about seven of every eight attended a religious school.



 



The Catholic electorate


 Voinovich clearly had a special interest in serving the Catholics, according to his correspondence with the bishops and their lobbyist.

    In his 1993 letter to bishops saying that they probably received larger increases than many public schools, he added: "I know how excited you are about receiving this money, because it will jump start your effort to bring technology into your schools."

    The public schools, on the other hand, would have to wait until 1995 before Voinovich and the legislature would launch an aggressive program to put computers in all public school classrooms. Meanwhile, local school districts were suffering from the worst record of levy defeats in 20 years after the state had cut funding, and a record number were falling into the equivalent of bankruptcy.

    The importance of the Catholic electorate to Voinovich can be found in his archives, which contain a 1995 national Republican Party study showing that the voting bloc was up for grabs. The national study showed that Catholics could easily swing to the Republican side if the right bells were rung.

    In Voinovichs case, it would be the school bells that he would ring. And he would ring them loudly, keeping in close touch with the bishops by returning their phone calls, meeting them in person and ordering his staff to work closely with their lobbyists, according to records.

    No place is the Catholic leadership's dealing and cash bonanza more evident than in the eight-year saga of a controversial state-funded school voucher program.

    The potential value of vouchers to the Catholic budget statewide was very high: Four of every five Ohio private-school children were enrolled in Catholic schools. Vouchers originally were discussed as a statewide possibility, so there could have been tens of millions of tax dollars dumped into the Catholic coffers.

    Shortly after Voinovich became governor, he and another Catholic, Akron industrialist and millionaire David Brennan, began assembling a group of people for a school choice commission that would recommend a plan for vouchers.

    Voinovich solicited from the bishops a list of names he gave Brennan as possible members of the choice commission.

    Meanwhile, the Cleveland Diocese forwarded a report to Voinovich describing how 13 inner-city Catholic schools were costing the diocese $1.2 million to keep open. The report said flight to the suburbs had left the inner-city schools with a disproportionately large concentration of poor children.

    Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, head of the Ohio Council of Bishops, told Voinovich the conference was prepared to testify on behalf of vouchers and pledged to organize a grass-roots support campaign through their parochial schools.

    But Brennan urged that the Catholics stay out of the voucher debate. His reasons can be found in a 1992 edition of the Cleveland Diocese's Catholic Universe Bulletin newspaper.

    "While Brennan admits the voucher system would be an enormous boost for the Catholic schools," the author wrote, "he says, 'The death knell of the idea would be if it is identified as a Catholic movement. The public distrusts all of this because of the religious involvement, but that is the very thing we have to restore to education.' "

    Conference lobbyist Tim Luckhaupt, who answered questions for this article on behalf of the Cleveland Diocese, confirmed the reason for the official position of neutrality: "I think it made a lot of sense. Simply because the Catholic Church has so many institutions in the state, one would automatically think it was the church that was behind the effort."

    According to a letter from Archbishop Pilarczyk, the governor promised taxpayer dollars in exchange for the church leaders' silence.

    "You may recall that in our telephone conversation on Oct. 29, 1993, you suggested that it would be helpful if the (Catholic) Conference would take a neutral position on the Ohio Scholarship (voucher) bill," Pilarczyk said in March 1994. "In return, you indicated a willingness to consider additional assistance for our students."

    Pilarczyk was writing to remind Voinovich of the deal they had struck. That's because the bishops had learned that although they had stayed neutral on vouchers, Voinovich's people were balking at increasing funding in the middle of the budget cycle.

    The bishops were hoping the new money could go into a budget corrections bill that would surface in the next few weeks, while the governor's office wanted to wait a year for the regular budget. The negotiations would be somewhat testy, and the bishops would have to wait a year to get the money.

    But they were rewarded for their patience.

    Not only would vouchers appear in the next budget, so would other big increases in aid, including one that would cause Voinovich's staffers to sweat about potential public relations nightmares and violations of the U.S. Constitution.



 



Getting wired first


 Pilarczyk was interested in classroom technology. He noted in his March 1994 letter that Voinovich recently had announced a $45 million SchoolNet program to wire all public school classrooms for new technology.

    "We are counting on you to do everything possible to provide our students the same opportunities as public school pupils in this exciting program," said the bishop in closing his letter. Voinovich was more than a month ahead of Pilarczyk.

    Several days after announcing SchoolNet, Voinovich had fired off this note to his budget director, R. Gregory Browning, and executive assistant for education Tom Needles: "Give very serious thought to how we could help our non-public schools in terms of wiring their classrooms for voice, video and data."

    Voinovich received a response from Browning he didnt want to hear: There could be a serious political backlash if the program allowed a private school to be wired ahead of a public school -- particularly considering "public schools don't have enough money in many cases."

    In light of a statewide lawsuit alleging that public schools were not adequately funded, this would be a dangerous move, the budget director advised. He also advised that there could be constitutional issues, since placing hardware in a religious school that could be used for religious purposes would run the risk of a federal lawsuit.

    Voinovich penned a response: "I want to get at a specific program now!!!!!" (sic) and sent a copy to Needles.

    The bishops asked for a meeting with the governor. They had a long list of items they wanted in the budget, and they wanted to meet face to face with Voinovich.

    Needles, himself concerned with the constitutional implications, prepared a briefing paper for the meeting that told the governor: "I would suggest that you tell the bishops that you are optimistic about increased funding. . . , but that more work remains to be done to figure out the most sound-proof way to provide technology dollars to Ohio's non-public schools."

    Voinovich and his wife, Janet, met with a dozen bishops and other Catholic representatives in June 1994. Among the bishops' requests was $10.7 million to hook their schools to the Internet.

    During the ensuing months, Catholic Conference attorney David Young expressed the same constitutional concerns as the governor's aide. But in the end, there would be two solutions designed to circumvent those concerns.

    First, an additional $18 million had become available from a program called "telecommunity." It gave the church leaders what they wanted.

    Telcommunity came about this way: Ameritech, the state's largest telephone company, wanted a relaxation of state regulation. A deal was struck with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in September 1994 -- in the midst of the Voinovich-Catholic Conference negotiations over computers -- in which Ameritech offered $3 million a year to schools for six years in exchange for deregulation from the state.

    Matt Cohen, a Department of Education official who was involved in the negotiations, recalls promises being made that a portion of the money would go to Catholic schools and the conference was guaranteed a seat on the oversight commission that wrote the rules for dispensing the money.

    Louis A. Jacobs, a constitutional law professor at the Ohio State University, says this is a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

    "The state can't do indirectly what it is prohibited from doing directly," he said. "The fact that the money is received in a regulatory deal rather than as tax dollars has no constitutional significance because the state is using its coercive power and regulatory control" to raise and spend the money.

    He said the Supreme Court has ruled that a film projector cannot be purchased for a religious school because it can be used for religious purposes. A computer is no different, he said.

    "We have no business providing that," he said. "Today's computer is the counterpart to yesterday's projector."

    Among the first applicants for the telecommunity money would be six Catholic high schools, one in each diocese. According to state officials, those six schools alone would receive more than 10 percent of the money in the first three years to hook to the Internet, upgrade electrical wiring, install computers and pay for phone service.

    The six would be up and running by January 1997 -- ahead of many public schools, as feared by the governor's own budget director, Browning -- and among them was Central Catholic High School in Cleveland. The school had some of the most advanced technology thanks to dollars that were carefully funneled through the state as Ameritech money.

    But for Cleveland Public Schools, it was a very different story.

    The school district, which had to depend on tax money, was bankrupt, had some of the lowest family incomes in Ohio and was producing the lowest proficiency test scores in the state. It didn't have all of its high schools wired to the high-speed communications cable until this fall -- more than two years later -- according to a spokeswoman for the Cleveland schools.

    The most common complaint public schools had at the time was that they did not have adequate electrical service to hook up computers. While the telecommunity program provided money right away for electrical service in the parochial schools, Voinovich didn't propose money to help public schools until the 1997-98 school year.

    Conference Executive Director Timothy Luckhaupt would boast in a memo to the Voinovich administration that, in that same 1997-98 school year, 98 percent of all Catholic schools were connected to the high-speed Ohio Education Computer Network, which provided access to the Internet.

    Samuel Orth II, director of the state's school technology program, said that at the same time, only 42 percent of public schools had the same high-speed Internet access.



 



 



Doubling the money


 The Ameritech program was only the first part of the deal made in 1994 with the bishops.

    Luckhaupt, in a letter to Needles in December 1994, said that if the Internet connection costs were now funded outside of the general fund budget, then the general fund money that already had been promised should now be freed up for other private school purposes.

    He wanted a doubling of administrative cost reimbursement -- state aid to help private schools comply with state regulations. He proposed that the per-pupil aid jump $78 to $147.50 in the new budget and ended his letter by boldly warning Needles that the governor would have to answer directly to the bishops if he failed to provide the money.

    "The Bishops are going to be very disappointed," Luckhaupt told Needles, "if the Governor is unable to fulfill any of the . . . requests. If this is the case, I suggest that the Governor call Archbishop Pilarczyk to explain the situation."

    The governor's office delivered the huge state budget on Jan. 31, 1995. Everything was there, including changes in law that allowed parochial schools to begin buying computer and video compact discs loaded with educational material -- and an experimental voucher program for any city willing to give it a try.

    The budget also showed the cost reimbursement rising to $147.50 per pupil, exactly as the bishops had requested. Oddly, of all the increases in education funding, that was the only line item in the budget highlights that did not show the percentage increase.

    Anyone who did the math would discover a 100 percent jump.

    In contrast, the Ohio Board of Education had asked the governor for a 20 percent increase in public school funding, but Voinovich had told the board members that their request was unrealistic. Instead, he proposed an increase of only 3 percent in public school basic aid, and within the funding formula he introduced a painful shift of money from wealthy districts to poor districts -- a practice known as Robin Hood.

    An elated Archbishop Pilarczyk wrote to Voinovich: "Everything that you and we discussed over the last twelve or fifteen months" is in the budget. He praised Voinovich for his "good faith, consistency and dedication to the good education of all of Ohio's children."

    The voucher proposal, however, received a very cool reception in the Ohio House and was almost stripped from the bill. Voinovich applied pressure to the House to keep it alive.

    State Rep. William Batchelder, R-Medina, came to the rescue with new language targeting Cleveland, according to a memo from Voinovich legislative aide Rocky Black.

    "My only concern with Batchelder," Black said, "is that he is focused too narrowly on the Catholic Schools' capacity for students. He says the Bishop can take another 2,400 students, and is drafting language accordingly."

    There was something else at work that helped win passage of increased aid to private schools: The conference mobilized school parents in a grass-roots campaign that floored some lawmakers. In a matter of a few weeks, building principals said they documented more than 2,000 letters and phone calls to several key state lawmakers.

    At least eight lawmakers felt compelled to visit at least one Catholic school. In contrast, only three lawmakers showed up for a bus tour of public school buildings a few weeks later, where they would see walls buckling from moisture, children using 15-year-old textbooks and classes being held in converted basement space.

    The tour was sponsored by a statewide coalition of public school districts that was suing the state, charging that public education was inadequately funded. The coalition had already won in Perry County Common Pleas Court and eventually would win its case at the Ohio Supreme Court.

    Instead of treating the public schools with the same largess granted private schools in the 1995 budget, lawmakers and Voinovich forced property owners to pick up a substantially larger portion of the cost of operating schools and shifted state support from wealthy districts to poor.

    Over a three-year period, they would shift an $839 million tax burden from the state budget onto local property owners, who would have to sharply increase their property taxes to maintain their schools. This was part of the Robin Hood maneuver.

    Voinovich let public school officials know they would have to live with it.

    "I grew up admiring Robin Hood," he was quoted as saying in newspaper articles.

    But he was much nicer in a letter to Bishop Anthony Pilla in Cleveland: "I think it is important for people to understand -- even though public school people in some districts are complaining they are being shortchanged, Ohio is doing a better job than any other state in the nation in terms of providing for our non-public schools."



 



"We have a job to do"



By the time the legislature and Voinovich had finished writing the next operating budget in 1997, the state had committed about $1 billion in tax money to private schools for the 1990s with vouchers, reimbursement for costs, purchase of textbooks, transportation, teacher training and technology.

    But also that spring, the Ohio Supreme Court dropped the bomb on Voinovich and the legislature, saying that too many public school children were receiving inadequate educations. Voinovich was livid, saying more than enough had been done for public schools.

    Two weeks later, he had an early-morning task force meeting in Columbus to discuss how to answer the court. There was much posturing and little accomplished in that first meeting. Voinovich said, "We have a job to do, and I think we can get it done working together."

    That same day, according to his calendar, he headed off to Florida for a party with David Brennan. While reporters were still in their offices that evening writing about the first task force meeting, the governor was at Brennan's condominium talking about shifting even more support to parochial schools on a nationwide basis.

    After the party, he wrote to Pilla: "Recently, I met with several businessmen in Naples, Florida, who are supporting my campaign for the United States Senate. The event was held at David Brennan's home and many of our mutual friends were there. . . .

    "Our non-public schools are doing a great job," the governor said, but too many business people "are not that familiar with our parochial school system and what they could be doing to support that system."

    He told Pilla, who at the time was president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, that church leaders should be lobbying for help.

    "You are providing an opportunity for a lot of kids who wouldn't ordinarily have a chance to have a good education, and we should really see if we can't stimulate more state support for a non-public school system," he said.

    He also pledged, as the next president of the National Governors' Association, that he would "be willing to pitch in and do my part."

    Meanwhile, numbers from the Ohio Department of Education showed that the funding gap between rich and poor public school districts continued to widen as the state had shifted the cost of education out of the state budget onto local property owners. And a Beacon Journal report in February 1997 showed that efforts to fix the worst public school buildings in the nation had come to a standstill.

    "I always had the idea he (Voinovich) resented he had to put more money into public schools," said William Phillis, executive director of the coalition that won the Supreme Court case.

    Phillis, a former assistant state school superintendent, serves on the board of directors of a private school and says he has "no problems with private education.

    But, he said, the Ohio Constitution requires the state to provide all children access to an adequate system of public education. Schools have enrolled children from many cultures and taught them to live together, he said.

    "If the social order is going to work, people have to live together," Phillis said. "Both government and religion have been well-served by having a wall of separation between church and state. People who are tearing down that wall ultimately heap harm on both religion and state. Government-subsidized religion becomes no religion at all.

    "It's always been clear in my mind that Voinovich's heart and loyalties lie with the private schools as opposed to public education," Phillis said.

    As for Voinovich, he remains proud of the state dollars that have gone to private schools -- and in particular to those run by the Catholic Church.

    At the Catholic educators conference in February where he was commended for his support of private schools, Voinovich said: "Theres a lot more I believe states could be doing for Catholic schools through vehicles that are perfectly constitutional.

    "I'm not sure what I can do here in Washington, but I'll do what I can."





Doug Oplinger can be reached at doplinger@thebeaconjournal.com