Catholic Leaders Lobby for School Vouchers in N.J.

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Roman Catholic leaders in New Jersey have begun an unusual, low-key lobbying effort in favor of private school choice, just as state officials are putting the final touches on a legislative proposal for a pilot voucher program.

The New Jersey Catholic Conference this month began a campaign to insert a series of pro-voucher messages in parish bulletins over eight weeks.

In a letter to local pastors, Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark asked for their cooperation "as we assist the families of this diocese and, indeed, the state of New Jersey, to be given the full rights to choose how they can be the best primary educators for their children."

Many New Jerseyites have been awaiting a legislative proposal being developed by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz, and Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City. Mr. Schundler was elected on a platform that stressed support for an experimental, local voucher plan that would allow low-income families to use government funds to send their children to nonpublic schools, including religious schools.

The draft legislation is supposed to be completed later this month and considered by the legislature this fall.

In his letter, Archbishop McCarrick states that "the kickoff of this [legislative] initiative will be during the eight weeks in which inserts will be running throughout the state."

Broad Advocacy

The first message, distributed to Catholic parishioners Sept. 10, states that "the Catholic bishops of New Jersey support publicly funded, constitutional efforts to create full educational choice which will be a cost effective means of providing parents the opportunity to select the best school for their children."

The message also quotes a prominent state legislator, Assemblyman Joseph P. Doria of Hudson, as saying that the state should be "open minded" about alternatives to traditional public schools.

The second message states that educational choice means not just vouchers, but also charter schools and "alternative schools within the existing public school structure."

"In all instances, educational choice offers the opportunity to use education dollars more effectively," the message argues.

Both messages urge Catholics to get in touch with their "parent network coordinator" for more information about reform plans.

George Corwell, a spokesman for the New Jersey Catholic Conference, played down the link between the school-choice messages and the voucher legislation.

"I wouldn't say we are gung ho for Schundler's proposal," he said. "That's just a concept right now. But in urban areas, where children have been denied opportunities, we would support the broad notion of allowing a choice of better schools."

Opposition Forming

Sister Suzanne Bellenoit, the parent-network coordinator for the Newark archdiocese, said she had received numerous calls from parishioners since the messages began going out.

"The whole concept of vouchers is not new," she said. "But because this proposal has moved forward in Jersey City, it has galvanized everyone's interest."

Karen Joseph, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association, said the teachers' union does not object to the bishops distributing the messages in church bulletins.

"They certainly have the right to put out a pro-voucher message, just as we have a right to put out an anti-voucher message," she said.

The N.J.E.A. is a member of a coalition of groups that last week announced its opposition to any voucher plan. The coalition, Community Advocates for Public Education, includes the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the New Jersey chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the state Congress of Parents and Teachers, and others.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, the executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action and a co-chairwoman of the coalition, said her group spent the summer talking to residents of Jersey City about vouchers.

"Thousands of them indicated that they oppose the shifting of their tax dollars away from the public schools," she said during a news conference on Sept. 22.

Vol. 14, Issue 04

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