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Catholic Officials in New York Offer a Voucher Plan

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In a plan that echoes themes sounded by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, Roman Catholic church officials in New York have advanced a voucher proposal that would let disadvantaged urban students transfer from low-performing public schools to private schools at state expense.

Representatives of the New York State Catholic Conference and the Council of Catholic School Superintendents made the call for "education-equity grants" at hearings held this month by the General Assembly's standing committee on education.

The proposed program would be piloted in a designated zone of New York City with high concentrations of poverty. Grants would go to parents of elementary-school students whose schools had been designated as low-performing by the state education department.

Schools 'Have Failed'

In making the proposal, church officials cited evidence of the effectiveness of Catholic schools in educating low-income and minority students in the inner city.

"The plain fact is that too many inner-city schools have failed for too long to provide youngsters with the skills they need to make it in life," said Brother James Kearney, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, at a committee hearing May 18 in New York City.

"If indeed it is the case that Catholic schools are effective in overcoming the effects of poverty," he said, "then doesn't it make sense for society to assist in making those schools and other successful public and nonpublic schools available to children trapped in failing public schools?"

In a speech last year, Mr. Bennett had admonished Catholic educators to "seek out the poor, the disadvantaged, the disruptive, the dropout, and take them in, educate them, and then ask society for fair recompense for your efforts."

Under the New York proposal, eligible students would have to meet guidelines for participation in the federal free-lunch program and could not have previously attended a private school.

The grants would equal the per-pupil cost of the nonpublic school to be attended, although base grants would not exceed $2,000. Students shown by special testing to be in need of remedial aid could receive additional aid of up to $800.

In their plan, the Catholic officials leave it up to lawmakers to decide funding options. They suggest that a new appropriation might be made to cover program costs, thus sheltering public schools from lost state aid for transferring students.

The state might also, they say, decide to reduce aid payments to cover all or part of the cost of the grants. Under the theory of school choice, they add, that could provide an incentive for public schools to improve.

There have been no bills introduced in the legislature advancing the plan. Jose E. Serrano, chairman of the Assembly education committee, said his panel was just beginning to examine the idea of public-school choice, and he doubted whether the Catholic voucher plan would attract much immediate interest.

"Theirs is a tempting proposal," he said. "It's a great idea, but it is not what is on the agenda right now."

Plans Afoot Elsewhere

A number of other jurisdictions are considering or have considered voucher plans this year.

In Louisiana, vouchers worth up to $1,200 for elementary-school students and $1,500 for secondary students have been proposed in the legislature, but the measures have failed to muster the necessary support.

In Wisconsin, a plan by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson would allow up to 1,000 low-income Milwaukee pupils to attend any public or nonreligious private school in Milwaukee County, which includes the city and suburbs. The Governor's original proposal last year, which was shot down in the legislature, included religious schools.

And in Illinois, a bill pending in the House of Representatives would provide a small voucher--from $50 to $60--for every student, which could be used as partial tuition payment for an alternative school. The measure has the strong backing of Roman Catholic and other religious-school leaders.

Presidential Meeting Sought

At the federal level, meanwhile, Catholic educational leaders are expressing continued dissatisfaction with the level of commitment President Bush has demonstrated on the issue of tuition tax credits for private schools. They have requested a meeting next month with the President.

In late March, during a question-and-answer session with students, Mr. Bush said parents should not reel10lceive a tax break for sending their children to private schools, a position that appeared to be in direct conflict with his campaign platform in favor of tuition tax credits.

The statement caused a stir among private educators, and the President's aides moved quickly to say that while Mr. Bush still supported the idea in concept, the federal government could not afford to provide the tax credit at this time.

Mr. Bush also met with a group of evangelical Christian leaders at the White House, apparently allaying their concerns about his support for the tax credit. But Catholic leaders have asked for their own meeting on June 9.

"We are not asking you or the federal government to subsidize our religion," wrote Sister Anne C. Leonard, director of educational services for the Archdiocese of Chicago. "We do believe firmly that parents have a constitutional right to choose the educational milieu for their children."

"We believe that some equitable and constituional way must be found which allows these parents to benefit directly from their educational tax dollars," she said.

The request was signed by top Catholic educational leaders nationwide and was accompanied by a separate letter on the subject signed by the archbishops of the nation's largest archdioceses.

In her letter, Sister Anne noted that President Nixon had held a similar meeting with Catholic school superintendents in 1970 concerning possible cuts in certain education programs.

There has been no word yet from the White House on whether the request will be granted, but the U.S. Education Department has contacted Catholic leaders, seeking more information.

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