June 18, 2008

City Lobbies to Cut Its Aid to Private Schools

By Linda Borg

PROVIDENCE -- The Providence School District spends $3.8 million a year -- more than half of its projected $6.9-million budget gap -- paying for services to private schools, including transportation, school bus monitors, textbooks, nurse teachers and crossing guards.

Yesterday, School Board President Mary McClure and the School Department's chief financial officer, Mark Dunham, testified in favor of a bill that would eliminate the payment of such services to private and parochial schools. The bill was heard before the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee and sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello of Providence.

In her testimony, McClure cited the dire economic challenges facing the state's public schools. Providence, she said, relies almost entirely on federal monies to provide supplemental programs to its most needy students, including math and reading intervention programs.

"This bill will provide significant financial relief to Providence schools," McClure said. "The Providence School Board and the leadership of the district must, first and foremost, advocate for the needs of the 24,000 students enrolled in our system.

"The families of these 24,000 students, joined with the families of the roughly 125,000 additional public school students throughout the state, expect us to prioritize the spending of public funds to meet the needs of the public school system. Three-point-eight million is a significant amount of funding to have flow away from our students and schools, particularly in the midst of a looming budget deficit and crisis in educational funding."

The district actually spends a total of $5.3 million on private schools. Of that total, $3.8 million comes from local dollars while the rest comes from the federal government. The $3.8 million is distributed as follows:

- $2.5 million for transportation. The public schools are only responsible for busing private school students who live within one of five regional transportation zones.

- $768,000 for crossing guards.

- $255,000 for special-education services.

- $190,000 for nurse teachers, who spend a half-day a week at a private school.

- $55,000 for textbooks. The district actually spends about $100,000 on textbooks, but the state reimburses the system for half that amount.

The textbook program works like this: Private or Catholic school parents are allowed to borrow from a 200-page list of textbooks that are used in any public school in the state. Typically, the public school buys the books and the private school orders them from the district.

Using public monies to assist private schools is not unusual. In 2003, about half the states provided some sort of aid to nonpublic schools and 11 states, including Rhode Island, loaned textbooks to nonpublic schools, according to the Education Commission of the States, a national data clearinghouse.

In Rhode Island, the textbook program dates to 1978, when the General Assembly required local districts to loan textbooks in three core subjects to nonpublic schools. In 2003, the legislature expanded that program to include English and social studies textbooks for all grade levels.

The state's two teachers' unions have historically opposed the textbook program, claiming it uses taxpayer dollars to pay for private education. But the Rhode Island Catholic Parents Federation has said that the amount spent on textbook assistance is a drop in the bucket when you consider how much the private and parochial schools save the taxpayer in terms of per pupil spending.

According to McClure, the state's public schools send textbooks to 56 nonpublic schools.

Michael Griffith, a school finance expert from the Education Commission of the States, said states have found various ways to get around the Blaine amendment, which prohibits public entities from funding religious institutions.

Vermont pays for students to attend private schools in districts that don't have public high schools. Other states help nonpublic schools finance building projects that would otherwise be prohibitive because of their size. And a growing number of states permit tuition tax credits. [email protected] / (401) 277-7823

Originally published by Linda Borg, Journal Staff Writer.

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