Thursday, May 7, 2009

Public dollars flow to private schools

[Guest post by Patrick McGuigan]

Frosty Troy, the crusty former publisher of the Oklahoma Observer, takes an absolutist position on the use of public dollars in education: “Public schools, public dollars; private schools, private dollars; and never the twain shall meet.”

But as Mr. Troy probably knows, the twain meet all the time. Examples are numerous.

News stories about Oklahoma’s pre-kindergarten (four-year-old) education program casually incorporate by reference sites where “free” (i.e., tax-financed) pre-K schools are being offered. Many stories include information about church-affiliated or other private providers receiving public support for providing pre-K care of one sort of another.

As for elementary education, consider the ubiquitous federal Title I program, which has for decades provided remedial services to children who live in high-poverty areas and who are failing (or are at risk) to meet core achievements. Under Title I, public school district officials are directed to consult with private schools on delivery of services.

Private schools in Oklahoma utilize Title I services in varied areas. Funding is driven by the “proportion of private school children from low-income families residing in participating public school attendance areas.” The law requires equitable services, not lesser services, for private school students.

In recent years, the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act established provisions for “supplemental services” that go directly to children, whether provided by a public or a private entity. Students enrolled at failing public schools can receive extra academic help – tutoring, computer-assisted education and similar things – outside the normal school day.

Parents can pick the service from a state-approved list, and school districts pay providers directly. So far, most services have been provided by for-profit vendors rather than private schools, per se.

In Oklahoma City and many other public school districts, taxpayer funds are used to pay private vendors who provide online courses, often for students who are failing in traditional classrooms. Privately run online course work has become common for public school high-school age children who need alternative instructional approaches.

As public school populations fluctuate or decline, sites no longer needed for schools are often leased (and occasionally sold) to private businesses or institutes. In Oklahoma City, groups like the Eagle Ridge Institute, which provides special services for troubled youth, have received bargain rates because of the recognized value of the work they do with young people.

At the higher education level, Pell Grants are the best-known federal program supporting students, based on economic status. As the name implies, this is an outright grant disbursed through participating institutions (public or private). College students can get $4,000 or more a year and never have to pay it back. It is usually limited to undergraduate studies, but exceptions exist.

Some students use Pell Grants at a public institution and later at private schools, and vice versa. The program has empowered millions of lower-income Americans to pursue their dreams of education.

Federal loan programs – Stafford Loans are probably the most widely utilized – allow qualifying lower- or middle-income students to access below-market interest rates, with no loan repayment until education is completed. The Stafford program also works directly with private loan alternatives, the feds' involvement reducing risk for lenders.

In our state, the Oklahoma Tuition Equalization Grant (OTEG) Program, coordinated by the state regents but with decision-making centered in educational institutions, provides grants of up to $2,000 a year to qualifying residents who choose to attend private not-for-profit colleges. These institutions are usually but not always church-affiliated.

The Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP) got a funding boost in late March, when state legislative leaders announced they would channel an additional $5.5 million into the scholarship program assisting students who complete core curriculum requirements. Also known as “Oklahoma's Promise,” OHLAP is available for students attending either public or private universities and at career tech centers working with public two-year institutions.

In short, taxpayer resources fund educational services in varied ways, and every day millions of public education dollars flow to private vendors or entities. That is a fact, not an opinion. And I've merely scratched the surface of government programs that assist parents and students in making educational choices.

Other examples of public dollars financing private delivery of services across all age levels are far too numerous to belabor here, including but not limited to: Head Start and early Head Start, child care assistance, and public-school food services, custodial, maintenance, transportation, and security personnel.

Whether or not federal, state, and local lawmakers want to allow further experimentation with privatization of educational services is a public policy question, not an outcome dictated in advance by any one faction.

But let’s make no mistake about this: Whether it’s educating toddlers or twenty-somethings, public dollars flow to private schools all the time.

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