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WASHINGTON LETTER Jul-30-2004 (940 words) Backgrounder. With logos posted March 10. xxxn

Campaign '04: Candidates' education proposals stick to the basics

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Amid the election-year rhetoric on the economy, foreign affairs, domestic policies and taxes, education does not often grab headlines.

In fact, the educational proposals of the presidential campaigns do not offer much contrast with each other. Both Democrats and Republicans are stressing the need for schools to provide more fundamental skills, close learning gaps and improve graduation rates, and for colleges to be made more affordable.

And even though much of the educational talk has little to do with private schools, Catholic school officials are paying attention to what politicians are saying and not saying.

On the campaign trail as the Republican candidate, President Bush speaks highly of the No Child Left Behind legislation, an educational centerpiece of his administration that aims to reform public schools by calling for statewide reading and math tests each year to identify failing schools.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who voted for the education bill, has routinely criticized Bush for not backing up the legislation with enough funding.

Oblate Father William Davis, assistant secretary for Catholic schools and public policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Department of Education, said Catholic school lobbyists had a "major struggle to get funding for everything" they asked for in the passage of No Child Left Behind Act, a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

He said funds for the revised legislation increased with the Bush administration, but he noted that federal funding has been tight and that funding for some pieces of legislation, including the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, "has never come close" to what Congress initially promised.

Father Davis told Catholic News Service that federal education officials have been open to consultation with religious leaders, particularly in making sure that private schools were included in No Child Left Behind. The legislation, which at a quick glance might seem to have nothing to offer private schools, gives them access to more programs.

It stipulates that private schools can participate in programs offered through public school districts for everything from staff development to drug prevention and programs for reading skills or for students with limited English proficiency. It also gives private schools greater access to technology and allows them to provide summer or after-school counseling or academic programs in areas with a high concentration of low-income families.

The legislative package failed to mention vouchers, though, saying only that students in failing schools have the option of transferring their children to a different public school or using a portion of the school's federal Title I funds for remedial programs to pay for private tutoring.

Vouchers, a favored school reform option among many Catholic school leaders, were endorsed in the U.S. bishops' 2003 document, "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility," which said parents "have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children, including private and religious schools."

"Principles for Educational Reform in the United States," a 1995 document by the USCCB Committee on Education, likewise praised vouchers saying, "parents have a right to choose a public, private or religious school without additional financial burden." The document is the most recent major document published by the bishops' education committee, although they are currently working on one focusing on future challenges for Catholic schools.

Bush, who has spoken in favor of vouchers, backed the newly legislated voucher plan for 1,700 low-income children in the District of Columbia and also requested funding for a federal Choice Incentive Fund, which would provide low-income parents of students attending low-performing schools to transfer their children to better public, charter, or private schools.

He has also shown support for educational tax credits, where individuals and corporations can donate funds to be used for school tuition or other educational expenses.

Kerry does not support vouchers or education tax credits. In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this year, he said, "I have never supported vouchers. I understand why parents want more choices and I believe they should have more choices in public schools. But public schools need resources and support, and vouchers drain them of both."

In the Senate, Kerry has voted against tax-free savings accounts of up to $2,000 per child annually to be used for tuition or other educational expenses.

Both Bush and Kerry are promising to do more to recruit, train and support teachers, an issue that is also a concern to Catholic school officials amid a nationwide teacher shortage.

Sister Dale McDonald, a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and director of public policy and education research for the National Catholic Educational Association, said she welcomes any federal plans to help teachers. But as she noted in an NCEA publication, Momentum, the private school community should demand "equitable participation" in "any measures that address teacher quality and shortages."

The bishops' "Faithful Citizenship" document likewise addressed the urgency of supporting teachers and of making sure public and private schools get equitable benefits. The bishops said they "support providing salaries and benefits to all teachers and administrators that reflect the principles of economic justice, as well as providing the resources necessary for teachers to be academically and personally prepared for the critical tasks they face."

"As a matter of justice," the document adds, "we believe that when services aimed at improving the educational environment -- especially for those most at risk -- are available to students and teachers in public schools, these services should be available to students and teachers in private and religious schools as well."


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