April 16, 2018

Parental Choice in Catholic Education: Spring Update

The following article by Greg Dolan, Director of Policy and Outreach for Catholic Education Partners, was originally published in NCEA’s Momentum Spring 2018 edition found here.

Catholic social teaching is clear on the role of the state in supporting parental decision-making in educating children. While support for parental choice can be traced to at least Pope Leo XIII 125 years ago, the Second Vatican Council’s Gravissimum Educationis contains the most succinct statement:

The public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children. (GE 20)

In alignment with this teaching, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2005 stated that, “[t]he entire Catholic community should be encouraged to advocate for parental school choice.” In 2018, Catholics across the country are answering the call to support parental choice legislation by writing their legislators, rallying in their communities and at state capitals, and speaking up across all media.

Catholic Education Partners exists to help amplify these voices and increase their impact. We join with state Catholic conferences, diocesan officials and school leaders to ensure proposed policies are in alignment with Catholic teachings and that their support is recognized and appreciated. There are a handful of states actively pursuing expansions of choice programs or creation of new options this legislative cycle.

In New Hampshire, advocates in the Diocese of Manchester, which covers the entire state, have been working with local partners to support an education savings account program (ESA). The state Senate and full House have passed the bill, and the governor is a strong supporter. As of mid-February, the House Finance Committee is reviewing the bill before it returns to the full House for a vote. Simultaneously, proposals to open four new Catholic schools in the coming years are being considered, especially in regions of the state not served by a Catholic school. Hope springs eternal that these new schools will be able to take in students eligible for ESAs.

The Catholic Conference of Kentucky has made enormous strides in gaining support for a scholarship tax credit in the legislature this year. Associate Director Andrew Vandiver calls the Capitol building his second home until session ends in April, when he is optimistic a $25 million tax credit will be available for donors to scholarship organizations in the Bluegrass State. “Our program would prioritize those students with special needs and from low-income families. Giving those families the option of a Catholic education would be a huge boost,” Vandiver said.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit in Pennsylvania is a success story for thousands of families. Gradual expansion of the program has brought its cap to $135 million, providing more than 35,000 scholarships annually. “The need for scholarships in Pennsylvania significantly exceeds the available scholarships, so I will not be content until all families can exercise choice,” the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference’s Director of Education Sean McAleer says. He is rallying support for an ESA bill that, “would help protect the most vulnerable children among us by focusing on the lowest-performing school districts in the state.”

Meanwhile, Missouri is close to enacting a tax-credit-funded ESA; Nebraska is considering a tax-preferred self-funded ESA with significant input from the Catholic conference; and Iowa’s legislature is debating an expansive ESA program.

Unfortunately, we have already seen one disappointment in 2018 – Mississippi’s Senate failed to advance its nearly-universal ESA bill to the House. However, Catholic Education Partners worked with diocesan school officials to raise the profile of Catholic support. And we were successful, with Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison exhibiting a letter from the Diocese of Jackson Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz in support of expanding ESA eligibility.

Existing programs continue to do well, built on the backs of strong Catholic school involvement. Most notable is the tax credit in Illinois, passed last summer to the surprise of many education policy watchers. January saw the opening of donations and sign-ups – the response to both was overwhelming, to the point of crashing computer systems. The enthusiasm in Illinois shows the power of the Church’s teaching and reminds us all that parents want the responsibility to select their children’s school.

As spring winds down, so too will legislative sessions in most states. While the movement for greater educational opportunities will have successes, we will also see defeats. It is important for us all to persevere, to remain confident in the truth of our convictions and the Church’s teachings, and to do our best to open Catholic schools for all – with or without our due support from the public power.

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Shawn Peterson
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