November 19, 2022

Edward French: Private schools’ public funding raises concerns

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In Maine, the state has long avoided holding private schools accountable for how they spend public tax dollars, even if those tax dollars are the primary support of the school. Maine has long had a sort of voucher system that allows students who live in an area that has no public schools to have state-paid tuition for a school of their choice. The recent SCOTUS court case determined that private religious schools should be included as a choice. But nobody has required that accountability must follow these public funds. In a piece for The Quoddy Tides, Edward French explains why this needs to end.

The state does not audit the spending of public funds by the private schools, and unlike public schools, where an elected school board oversees the budget with public meetings that are attended by parents and community members, private schools are overseen by boards of trustees, who are privately selected and may reside outside of Maine.

Bill Mathis, who lives in Goshen, Vt., is the national president of the Horace Mann League, an honorary association of leaders who promote the public school system, and is the former managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado. As a former Vermont school superintendent, he notes that private schools object to having the public looking at their accounting records, but he says, “If you’re going to slop at the public trough, you’re going to have to play by the public rules. If you’re going to take public monies, you need to be accountable for it. Otherwise, you don’t have a democracy any more.”

He points out that private academies have strong networks of alumni who may say that the schools are private and should be “able to do what they want. But once you take public money, you give up that right.” He also points to concerns about acceptance policies at the academies, particularly for special needs students, and expectations that parents will financially support a private school. “Privatization can’t work across socio-economic classes,” he says. “They segregate.” In addition, private schools take away from the public monies going to public schools. “Their goal is two systems — separate and unequal.”

The few audits that have occurred reveal troubling issues.

There also have been concerns about the handling of public monies at private schools in Maine. The 2020-2021 financial audit for Washington Academy states that the school had “materially misstated account balances as of June 30, 2021, requiring correction after year-end and internal control policies and procedures were not followed during fiscal year 2021.” The audit found that the misstatement of balances was caused by WA having “an ineffective director of finance during fiscal year 2021, who did not perform the duties of the position.” The ineffective oversight “could have resulted in misappropriation of assets,” the audit states. It does not say that assets were stolen but rather that they could have been misappropriated because of the lack of oversight.

Is it worse to imagine that the monies have been stolen, or to realize that they could have been stolen and nobody would know?

There are more troubling details. Read the full piece here.

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