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Couple Gives $25 Million for Catholic School Vouchers

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A Rochester, N.Y., couple has announced a $25 million gift that will help local children afford an education at one of six Roman Catholic elementary schools.

The donation by Robert and Peggy Wegman of Wegmans Food Markets Inc. is one of the largest ever to Catholic elementary education in this country.

"For decades, Catholic schools have provided Rochester's children with a sound, values-centered education," Mr. Wegman said in announcing the gift late last month. "But we must ACT now to keep them open so that families continue to have a choice."

The Diocese of Rochester will use the bulk of the money to create an inner-city voucher program named for the Wegmans. Over a period of 10 years, the program will provide financial-aid vouchers to families based on need and parental involvement. Diocesan officials estimate that, on average, the grants will cover 50 percent of each student's tuition, or about $1,500 a year.

Aiming for Continuity

Some 1,100 students now attend the six schools. More than half are not Catholic, and about 60 percent come from families whose annual incomes put them below the federal poverty line. Eventually, officials expect total enrollment to climb to 1,400.

Some 10 percent of the gift will go to help graduates of the six schools continue their education at an area Catholic junior high school of their choice.The remaining funds will be set aside to upgrade buildings, expand special programs, and help children in other Rochester Catholic schools. The Rochester Diocese has a sizable Catholic population, with 54 Catholic elementary schools.

The Wegmans are not newcomers to philanthropy. Most recently, in 1993, they established a $3 million early-childhood-education program that provides Catholic preschool education and day care to low-income 3- and 4-year-olds.

Although the preschool program has been successful, the couple worried about what would happen when the children reached kindergarten. The new voucher program will help families keep their children in the Catholic system at least through elementary school.

The program joins a number of other privately funded voucher programs for religious schools across the country. Most recently, donors in the Milwaukee area pitched in $1.5 million so children in the city's school-voucher program could continue to attend religious schools despite a state supreme court injunction. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

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