Carol Biliczky

CIRCLEVILLE: A Christian university in Ohio, whose president sits on the state school board overseeing school curriculum, is offering classes to public high school students at taxpayer expense and teaching courses from a conservative Christian perspective.

State law prohibits religious instruction as a part of the publicly funded Post-Secondary Enrollment Options Program, but Ohio Christian University makes clear on its website that it teaches with a conservative Christian perspective.

Students who enroll are eligible for high school and college credit. Many enroll online and some participate at the school’s Circleville campus.

As an example of its curriculum, the school says students taking the class Survey of American History “will be able to analyze the varied political, economic, religious, and cultural achievements of America in light of biblical truth,” according to an online course description.

The classes are available to students in public and private high schools. Their tuition to Ohio Christian is deducted from local school districts, and for private-school students the state established a special fund.

No comment

College President Mark Smith, in his second year on the state school board, refused through spokeswoman Ronda Baldwin to discuss details of PSEO classes and funding for this story.

“If you truly wanted to do a story on PSEO, it has been one of a few strategies as a community-wide effort to increase the low baccalaureate rate of 11 percent in Pickaway County to 14 percent in just a few short years,” she wrote in an email. “It is a beautiful story of how business, education and the community are working together to impact a county with a low baccalaureate rate.”

But laws creating the program say specifically that courses are to be nonsectarian, which means they are not to be religious in nature.

In Stark County, Mike Bayer, director of curriculum and instruction for the Stark County Educational Service Center, said he has talked to universities about the prohibitions against religious teaching in the PSEO program.

However, he said he has no control over what the students, in the end, are taught. It’s up to individual high school counselors to monitor that. “The only thing that I had control over was the dual enrollment that was offered at the high school,” he said. Dual enrollment is a separate college-credit program in which a high school classroom teacher uses college curriculum provided by the university.

The Ohio Department of Education, which is governed by the board on which Smith sits, receives a bill and deducts that amount from the home school districts of the students. The invoices list only the students’ name, high school, tuition and textbook charges and the number of credits they earned.

In 2011-12 — the last year for which the department provided data — colleges collected $28.3 million in tuition and books for almost 16,000 high school students.

Defining religion

An Ohio Department of Education information page on the program says, “Students participating in the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options Program may enroll exclusively in nonsectarian courses.”

The 30 general education courses in Ohio Christian University’s Trailblazers Academy have many strong Christian themes, according to course descriptions on the university’s website.

“General Psychology,” for example, “will reflect a holistic Christ centered biblically integrated education in the Wesleyan tradition.” “Western Civilization II” will help students develop a Christian worldview of history.

However, John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said in an email that there is no definition for what constitutes a “sectarian” or “nonsectarian” course.

He said it is the responsibility of the college offering the course and the student’s home high school to determine if the course is nonsectarian “and therefore makes the course eligible for reimbursement.”

John Green, a specialist in politics and religion at the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said the classes sound sectarian, but wondered how important the issue is.

“These courses would seem sectarian, from the point of view of advocating Christianity,” Green said.

The education department could turn to the state legislature for help defining the word sectarian. Or the education department could leave the matter to others — the student, the high school and the college or university.

But, he said, “If everybody’s happy, then there’s nothing to worry about. They can turn their attention to where there is unhappiness.”

He said that is not an unreasonable position in a diverse society.

Smith’s board role

At Ohio Christian University, President Mark Smith is a political activist, running the Ohio Faith & Freedom campaign, which supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and held the organization’s meeting on his campus.

According to the college’s Form 990 filed with the IRS, Smith was paid $231,850 in 2011 as president.

Smith was appointed by Gov. John Kasich to the Ohio Board of Education, where he joins several other politically active Republican appointments.

The board as a whole determines the regulations for the use of public K-12 money.

Smith sits on the executive committee of the board, which evaluates, hires and fires the state superintendent, who runs the education department.

Lobbyist on board

At this moment, there is a board debate on how to structure gifted education programs, of which PSEO is a part.

C. Todd Jones, the paid lobbyist for Ohio Christian University and about 50 other private colleges in Ohio, not only sits on the school board with Smith but chairs the committee that is deciding the gifted guidelines. He has actively lobbied the legislature and governor’s office on PSEO law that would benefit the colleges at the same time he is running board meetings on the topic.

The Ohio Ethics Commission has received a complaint regarding Jones’ activity, but will not say whether an investigation is underway.

For Jones’ clients, the PSEO program appears to be an explosive source of income.

In the Circleville Herald newspaper in March, Smith wrote that OCU has “more high school students in college classes than any other private university in the PSEO program.”

Whether that is accurate could not be confirmed. The department’s website shows Ohio Christian a distant second to Tiffin University in the 2011-12 school year, and the department was unable to provide the Beacon Journal with 2012-13 numbers. If Smith has more recent numbers, they were not available in a records request.

OCU’s growth

Ohio Christian began as the Mount of Praise Bible College in 1948 to train ministers for the Churches of Christ in Christian Union denomination. It later became the Circleville Bible College and in 2006 took on the name by which it is known today.

Along the way, it has dramatically extended its reach, recruiting a record 600 into its traditional college-age program last fall, thanks in large part to Smith, who became president in 2006.

He has overseen new construction, expansion into online classes and in the last four years has tapped public money for PSEO courses, buttressing the college’s finances.

Last fall, OCU won a $2.5 million federal grant to build what it calls an “innovation development center” on university property.

The university’s revenues have more than doubled, from $10.7 million in fiscal 2009 to $27.8 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012, according to nonprofit filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

Total enrollment has surged from 380 seven years ago to 3,800 today, the highest rate of increase of any public or private nonprofit college or university statewide.

The school's mission is to provide a “holistic, Christ-centered, biblically integrated education in the Wesleyan tradition,” according to the university’s website.

A public records request of the tuition bills submitted by Ohio Christian shows that since the school began offering PSEO classes five years ago, yearly income from the state or school districts has trebled to almost $184,000 in the 2013 fiscal year ending June 30.

The records do not show how many individual courses were taken.

Most students took nine to 12 credits a year, and the highest appeared to be one student from Circleville’s Logan Elm High School who took 30 credits worth $5,637 in tuition and fees. Two students were from the Akron-Canton area: Ravenna and Norwayne.

Almost half of the 229 PSEO students were from Catholic and Christian schools including the Delaware Christian School, Fairfield Christian Academy and others.

The biggest provider of PSEO courses to high school students in 2012 was Cuyahoga Community College, which enrolled almost 1,700 students. Lorain County Community College came in a distant second with almost 1,400 students, according to figures supplied by the Ohio Department of Education.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729, or cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com.