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Bennett Proposal Nets Good Will, Skepticism Among Catholics

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When Secretary of Education William J. Bennett visited a Roman Catholic school in New Orleans recently, he got an encouraging response to his proposal that Catholic schools take on public-school dropouts--and seek public funding if they help them graduate.

"We're very willing to have a partnership with the public schools,'' said Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans during the Secretary's visit to Xavier University Preparatory School on April 15. "We'll do it any way possible.''

But in interviews last week, many Catholic educators were less optimistic about the chances of that partnership occurring anytime soon, if at all. Their responses suggest that many have conceded--at least temporarily--in the battle to win major federal funding for parochial schools.

"We're not establishing any study committees yet,'' said Nora S. Murphy, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York schools. "The concept is worth exploring, but there are several questions about it, the first being the constitutionality of reimbursement.''

In a speech at the annual meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association in April, Mr. Bennett told some 18,000 Catholic educators to "seek out the poor, the disadvantaged, the disruptive, the dropout, and take them in, educate them.''

"Then ask society for fair recompense for your efforts,'' he said.

The proposal, which he called Project Voluntas, could become, Mr. Bennett said, a model of private initiative that would save children from becoming society's castoffs. The Latin word means "good will,'' "testament,'' and "will.''

In the weeks since Mr. Bennett's address, however, Project Voluntas has yet to create much more than good will among Catholic educators--and ill will among some public-education advocates.

"It's exciting and futuristic--but realistic? I don't know,'' said Brother John E. McGovern, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y.

Running 'Afoul' of Constitution?

Mr. Bennett's proposal drew immediate criticism from public-school groups. Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, said the program was a repackaging of the Reagan Administration's failed voucher plan, and was unconstitutional.

"I certainly don't want to run afoul of the Constitution,'' Mr. Bennett said in New Orleans. He recommended the use of vouchers that could be redeemable at participating schools.

Howard Jenkins, superintendent of schools in the New Orleans archdiocese, discounted any possibility of government funding.

"The only avenue open is for the business community to take up the challenge to fund the program,'' he said. "And at the present moment I haven't gotten any calls from the business community.''

Teachers and principals in the archdiocese nonetheless are interested in the proposal, Mr. Jenkins said.

Most immediately, Mr. Bennett's speech may provide an impetus for the archdiocese's effort to raise endowment funds for its schools, Mr. Jenkins said.

Cardinal John O'Connor, the Archbishop of New York, wrote to Mr. Bennett last month to praise the proposal, according to the Secretary's staff.

But Ms. Murphy, the spokesman for the archdiocese's schools, said Mr. Bennett's summons to Catholic educators to take in "the worst 5 or 10 percent in your communities'' was unclear.

Spurs 'Creative Thinking'

"Is he talking about students who were not challenged and dropped out, or is he talking about those with serious behavioral problems?'' she asked. Serving the latter would require a wide spectrum of support services, she said.

Sister Catherine T. McNamee, president of the NCEA, said the proposal merits further study.

"It opens the doors for a lot of creative thinking,'' she said. Pilot projects with business funding would be more feasible than seeking goverment support, she added.

The NCEA president pointed to two business-sponsored programs currently supporting inner-city Catholic schools. Philadelphia's Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools has raised several million dollars to support the schools there.

And, last year, a similar organization, the Big Shoulders Fund, raised about $5 million for Catholic schools in Chicago.

Catholic educators have not given up on government aid, Sister McNamee maintained, but are taking a longer view of that debate.

A Long-Range Battle

"As the Secretary said in his speech, those are longer-term projects, and the legal battles are considerable,'' she said.

"I believe in the power of choice,'' said Brother McGovern of Syracuse. "But I see it as a matter for the public-policy agenda.''

Of the Secretary's vote of confidence in Catholic education, Ms. Murphy of New York said, "We're flattered that someone in his position says these schools can do what others haven't, and we're willing to respond to the need, but obviously, it's not going to happen in September 1988.''

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