Building on Success, Catholic Educators Press Their Case for Private-School Choice

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Now, they say, Catholic educators appear poised to raise the stakes by working to muster grassroots support for including Catholic and other sectarian schools in any all of the various choice proposals and experiments developing around the nation.

" What we are working for is the right for all parents to choose the schools for their children," Sister Catherine T. McNamee, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, said in an interview at the NCEA's convention this month.

Catholic educators' desire to step up their efforts to push for the inclusion of Catholic schools in choice proposals is evident in several recent developments. For example:

  • Catholic educators plan to make parental choice in education and the broadening of public and private financial support for Catholic schools a major theme at a "congress" they will hold in Washington this fall on the future of their schools.
  • In passing a statement endorsing a continued commitment to Catholic schools, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops last November called for greater efforts to ensure that Catholic parents be able to send their children to Catholic schools, including the pursuit of public financial assistance for that purpose.
  • Also at that meeting, the bishops provided $2 million in seed money for a national office to guide state and diocesan groups on such issues as choice and to establish a national Catholic parents' organization to lobby on the issue.
  • At the NCEA's convention here, the choice theme resounded throughout numerous sessions and speeches.

"It's time to call in your debts," said A. Polly Williams, the nationally known state legislator from Wisconsin who helped adopt a voucher program for low-income Milwaukee children to attend non-sectarian private schools at state expense.

"All these bureaucrats and public school teachers have their children in your schools," she told a session at the NCEA convention. "You have to cut it as an empowerment issue. It's time to use your power, people."

Ms. Williams was heralded for her tough talk on shaking up the public-school bureaucracy and on using state funds to send poor children to private schools, even though no Catholic schools are involved in the Milwaukee experiment.

Another reform advocate who was enthusiastically received at the convention was Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University and a co-author of the controversial book Politics, Markets, and America's Schools.

In it, Mr. Moe and John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argue for a new system of public education built around parental choice and competition among schools.

The authors based their recommendations on their conclusions that private schools, including Catholic schools, have been able to function with more autonomy and 0 less political interference than public schools and have been more effective at raising student achievement.

Both the Milwaukee choice proposal and the publication of the Chubb-Moe book, among other recent developments, have been credited with reviving the prospects for private schools to be considered in virtually every level of the debate 0 over parental choice in education. (See Education Week, Feb. 20, 1991.)

"The Catholic schools are doing a tremendous job of educating children, but they are in a crisis," Mr. Moe said at the convention. "If they can get public money without major strings attached, then it would be advantageous" for them to support the choice-centered reforms described in the book.

A Constant Drumbeat

Over the past several years, Catholic educators have kept up a constant drumbeat for including private schools in discussions about choice, and their efforts, observers say, appear to be paying off.

Just two years ago, a White House conference on parental choice was confined to discussions of choice options involving the public schools.

Several weeks later, President Bush caused a firestorm when he pro claimed that he did not favor tuition- tax credits for parents who sent their children to private schools.

Support for such a plan had been part of the Republican platform in 1988 and had come to be identified with the more conservative members of the GOP.

Backpedaling, the White House said the President could not support tuition-tax credits at that time be cause of budgetary limitations.

The next June, Catholic educators pressed Mr. Bush for a stronger showing of his support, and, in their assessment, made progress at a meeting between the President and the top education officials of the country's largest dioceses. It was a good beginning, but we still have a long way to go," Sister Catherine said at the time.

The President's thinking on the is sue has apparently evolved further. In January, Mr. Bush proposed a $200-million plan to reward districts that develop parental-choice policies, including those that allow the participation of private religious schools.

Questions Remain

Despite their success in elevating the Catholic schools' visibility in the choice debate, Catholic educators acknowledge that questions remain about what they mean when they advocate "choice."

Many pronouncements from Catholic education officials at the national level have touted choice "for all parents" without elaborating on such issues as educational vouchers or tuition-tax credits.

"I don't think we have spelled out in our minds where exactly we want o go" by advocating choice, said L Frank J. Monahan, director of the office of government liaison of the United States Catholic Conference, the public-policy arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Agreed Michael J. Guerra, executive director of the NCEA's secondary-school department: "What is really going on right now is a struggle for the language. Is there a commitment to a political tactic with a specific political product at the end of it? No."

"There are a variety of different ways in which choice can evolve," he continued. "There's much more to be done in sharpening the debate."

Vouchers Advocated

The ideal plan, in the eyes of many Catholic educators, would be a general voucher program at the federal or state level that would provide significant funding for parents to use at the private schools of their choice.

"But we haven't totally thought through the implications of a full voucher," Mr. Monahan acknowledged. If a general program of public assistance to private-school parents were to come about, he added, the Catholic- school community should be prepared to sacrifice some of its autonomy, such as control over admissions policies or limitations on discipline.

"There seems to be a rather naive belief among many Catholic educators that they could fully participate in a publicly financed program of choice and carry on with business as usual," Mr. Monahan writes in an essay prepared for the upcoming L congress on Catholic schools. "The one thing that history teaches about government-funded education is hat it brings a certain level of regulation and limitation with respect to how tax dollars are used." Most view the political prospects for adoption of a general voucher program as exceedingly slim, especially at the federal level.

Tuition-Tax Credit Eyed

The tuition-tax credit is a more viable alternative, many Catholic educators argue. At least two states, Minnesota and Iowa, give such credits to parents whose children attend nonpublic schools.

A federal tax-credit program nearly passed the Congress in 1972, until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a broad program of aid for non public education that included tax credits. President Reagan also supported a tuition-tax credit, but was unsuccessful in getting a proposal through the Congress.

Mr. Monahan doubts that a tuition-tax credit that would benefit Catholic-school parents is likely to pass the Congress during times of a major federal budget deficit.

More likely are local plans, such as the one in Epsom, N.H., where town officials authorized tax abatements for property owners who sponsor a high-school student's private education. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1991.)

Catholic education officials also believe it may be easier to build support for choice proposals centered around program-specific vouchers, such as one that would allow low-income students to attend a Catholic school, or one that would pay for just one school program, such as Chapter 1 services.

Opposition Still Vocal

For the time being, some say, catholic educators need to focus on organizing greater grassroots support among Catholic parents for choice in general--an effort they argue will aid wider public acceptance of private-school choice.

"There is a real need to develop lay and parental leadership at both 0 the parish and diocesan levels," Mr. Monahan said.

John E. Coons, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and a strong choice advocate, argues in an essay for the Catholic-schools congress that parents are but one element of a coalition that must form behind choice.

Other groups needed, he writes, include representatives of business and private welfare groups, operators of child-care centers, and home schoolers.

Social science has confirmed, he argues, "that Catholic schools have most nearly solved the problem of teaching disadvantaged children. They have served the poor best of all."

Nonetheless, Catholic educators acknowledge that they will continue to face stiff resistance to any major program of tax support for nonpublic schools--both from the public-school establishment and, in the case of sec tarian schools, from advocates of strict separation of church and state.

Late last year, a coalition of 10 major public education organizations, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National School Boards Association, spoke out against private-school vouchers.

Groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State also closely monitor Catholic Church efforts to gain more public assistance.

"Most religious schools saturate their curriculum with religious views," said Rob Boston, a spokes man for Americans United. "When you start funding those schools with money from the general population, you are taxing people to fund religious endeavors. The Catholics want to evangelize non-Catholic families through the schools."

Vol. 10, Issue 30, Page 1, 16

Published in Print: April 17, 1991, as Building on Success, Catholic Educators Press Their Case for Private-School Choice
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