When the National Catholic Educational Association gathered this month to celebrate its 100th anniversary, it invited President Bush to a gala dinner at a hotel ballroom here. The president had a conflict and could not attend the banquet, but he pleasantly surprised the group by instead inviting its leaders and some 250 Roman Catholic educators to the White House.
“Catholic schools have a proven record of bringing out the best in every child, regardless of their background,” the president said at the Jan. 9 meeting in the East Room, where he showered praise on Catholic schools for achieving strong academic results on shoestring budgets and holding high expectations for all children.
He also voiced strong support for legislation pending in Congress that would establish a pilot school voucher program in the District of Columbia. If approved, the program would allow many public school students to use federal dollars to enroll in Catholic and other private schools.
Mr. Bush’s effusive praise for Catholic educators was aimed in part at attracting Catholic voters in this year’s presidential election, political analysts said.
“The political constellation is such that in order for President Bush to be elected, he needs to increase his support by a few percentage points in a half-dozen key constituent groups,” said Larry J. Sabato, a professor and the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “They include Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Midwesterners, and Catholics.”
In 2000, Vice President Al Gore won the Catholic vote—historically, a Democratic constituency—over Mr. Bush by only 3 percentage points, 50 percent to 47 percent, according to Voter News Service exit polls cited in news-media reports.
But a shift by Catholic voters toward the Republican Party that is credited to Ronald Reagan appears to still be felt. Crisis magazine, a Catholic publication based in Washington, noted in a 2001 analysis that Mr. Bush won the vote among the most religiously active Catholics. Among the 42 percent of Catholics who said they attended Mass at least once a week, Mr. Bush won 55 percent of the vote, while Mr. Gore received 42 percent, according to the magazine.
Deal Hudson, the publisher of Crisis and an informal adviser to President Bush on how to reach out to Catholics, said he believes the president was sincere in the views he expressed in the White House session with Catholic educators, but also used it as a political opportunity.
“The president has reached out to Catholics as a voting bloc during his campaign,” Mr. Hudson said. “He believes his values and agenda appeal to Catholics.”
But one of the country’s most prominent Catholic priests, the Rev. Andrew Greeley, an author and sociologist, said in an interview that he has been underwhelmed with the president’s outreach to Catholics.
Although Father Greeley was invited to the White House meeting, he decided not to go. He said he doubted that Mr. Bush’s session with the educators would win over Catholic teachers’ unions or opponents of school vouchers.
“Since Richard Nixon, Republicans have been promising they will help Catholic schools—and they haven’t,” said Father Greeley, who is a Democrat. “I don’t think President Bush is any more sincere than Richard Nixon was. And that’s the reason I didn’t go. I’ve heard that line before, and I wasn’t going to go and hear it again.”
Father Greeley said that he’s a supporter of voucher programs and would like to see President Bush propose legislation that would permit public financing of private schools on a national basis. At the same time, he said that vouchers would not solve the financial problems of Catholic schools. Realistically, it will be up to Catholics themselves to continue to support those schools, he said.
Praising Catholic Schools
In his 15-minute speech to the educators, President Bush called the educational results of Catholic schools “astonishing.” He noted that 99 percent of students who attend Catholic schools graduate, and that almost all of them go to college.
“Even though the per-pupil expenditure per classroom is low, the results are extremely high,” he said.
The president lent renewed support to the plan that would provide scholarships of up to $7,500 in federal money per child for students from low-income families in Washington to attend private schools. The plan has passed the House of Representatives as part of an omnibus spending bill. That bill was awaiting a vote in the Senate, possibly as soon as this week.
“The Catholic school system here in D.C. provides a really good alternative,” Mr. Bush said. “And the federal government is now willing to help fund that alternative.” The president didn’t use the word “vouchers” in reference to the scholarship plan.
Mr. Bush also announced that as part of his upcoming fiscal 2005 budget proposal, he would propose $50 million for a “national choice incentive fund” that would provide competitive grants to states, districts, and community groups to provide low-income parents with additional opportunities to transfer their children to higher-performing public and charter schools or private schools.
The president said that “the spirit and the philosophy of the No Child Left Behind Act came from the examples set by the Catholic schools.”
The Catholic educators gave the president extended and enthusiastic applause throughout the speech.
Michael Guerra, the president of the NCEA, said that he was delighted that the president honored the organization, which is made up of some 200,000 Catholic educators.
Mr. Guerra said that it was fitting for a U.S. president to recognize the contribution of Catholic schools, and that he didn’t perceive the invitation by Mr. Bush as a political statement.
“Everything the president said related to education, and we Catholic educators believe that we are an important part of American education,” Mr. Guerra said. “He pointed out the ways that we make a distinct contribution, and we agree with that.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as President Lauds Catholic Schools; Renews Support for Voucher Plan