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Published in Print: February 17, 1999, as Catholics Gather To Discuss 'Moral Issue' of Choice

Catholics Gather To Discuss 'Moral Issue' of Choice

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Washington

The event opened with a prayer for participants to "assume more effective leadership roles" in the school choice movement and for "clarity, that [they] may develop an understanding of the complexities" of the issue.

But at the special meeting here this month hosted by the National Catholic Educational Association, many of the 100 religious school leaders already agreed on one basic point: Despite the legal and political debates over tuition tax credits and vouchers, at its core, school choice is a moral issue. The NCEA summed up that view in the title it bestowed on the event, "Catholic Schools and School Choice: Partners for Justice."

The Washington-based group, which represents educators in Roman Catholic institutions from preschool through graduate school, organized the Feb. 4-7 gathering to give a "shot in the arm" to Catholic involvement in the school choice movement, NCEA President Leonard DeFiore said.

"The idea was to bring people together and understand where we are nationally, and with that information, be armed to go back to their states and dioceses and develop a plan for where they are," Mr. DeFiore said. "We're at a moment here where lots of activity is occurring, and we wanted to make sure our people are prepared to participate."

Organized as a symposium, the meeting's discussions centered on a series of presentations and six papers by academics, political observers, and activists. Topics ranged from the ethical justifications offered for school choice and vouchers' effects on student achievement, to the varied forms that choice is taking across the country.

Bishop Robert J. Banks

Bishop Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wis., the chairman of the NCEA's board, reminded the gathering that the church laid out the rationale for supporting private school choice in Rome more than 30 years ago. The Second Vatican Council, the historic 1962-65 gathering of bishops and other church leaders, produced a "Declaration on Christian Education." That statement, Bishop Banks said, affirmed society's duty to ensure that poverty doesn't keep parents from choosing the best school for their children.

"Justice demands that this nation do something to make choice more possible for all of our people," the bishop argued.

Though many of the speakers here said their ultimate goal was to get a full-tuition voucher for any parent who needed one, U.S. Sen. George V. Voinovich suggested urging more states to begin by providing other kinds of support to private school students, such as transportation and instructional materials.

"There's a whole lot more I believe states could be doing for Catholic schools through vehicles that are perfectly constitutional," said Mr. Voinovich, who received an award from the NCEA for his support of school choice during his tenure as Ohio's governor. The Republican played a key role in creating Cleveland's voucher program, now under review by the state supreme court.

"I'm not sure what I can do here in Washington," the recently sworn-in senator said. "But I'll do all I can."

J. Patrick Rooney

Despite their avowed belief that vouchers serve a moral purpose, many participants agreed that end could not be achieved without substantial political means. J. Patrick Rooney, an insurance tycoon and prominent school choice advocate, urged the church and school leaders to consider putting more dollars into political campaigns for vouchers and tax credits.

The public still views school choice as a partisan issue chiefly espoused by Republicans, Mr. Rooney said. But Catholics, who traditionally have tended to vote Democratic, are well-positioned to "convert the Democrats," he argued. That's especially so, he said, if they can generate support among the rapidly growing, and largely Catholic, Hispanic population, whose political influence is also on the rise.

Mr. Rooney also argued that school choice should fit with Democrats' professed commitment to serving the poor.

"We should go to the Democratic leadership and say, 'Remember your roots,' " he said.

--Jeff Archer

Vol. 18, Issue 23, Page 6

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