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WASHINGTON LETTER May-3-2013 (800 words). Backgrounder and analysis. xxxn
School-choice movement gains slow but steady momentum
By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- School-choice initiatives -- akin to the quiet students in the back of a classroom -- have kept a relatively low profile in recent years while steadily working their way to the front.
The movement was given a big boost in late March when the Indiana Supreme Court upheld one of the country's most comprehensive school-choice programs. The state court backed a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said that because school vouchers primarily benefit families, they could not be viewed as an unconstitutional state support for religion.
Currently, there are 30 school-choice programs in 17 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 250,000 students. School-choice programs -- primarily vouchers and tax-credit scholarships -- have continued to grow since 1990, when the first school-voucher program started in Milwaukee, followed close behind by similar programs in Ohio and Florida.
In the past two years, five new states have added school-choice legislation, while other states have expanded programs already in place.
But for all the steps forward, there are still school-choice programs that do not get approved, including a recent voucher proposal in Kansas. Congress also has not been keen on voucher legislation. Recently, the Senate voted down more than $14 billion in federal money for school vouchers for low-income families in an amendment to a spending bill.
John Schoenig, director of the University of Notre Dame's Program for Educational Access, acknowledges that the "pace may be slow" with school-choice initiatives, but he also thinks the movement is seeing a positive turn.
"We've never had so much wind at our back," he told Catholic News Service May 2, noting that public opinion on the issue is changing. He said states that have accepted some type of school choice in recent years are "across the political spectrum," such as Utah and Rhode Island.
Schoenig heads a program that was formed in 2010 to conduct research, training and outreach efforts to help low-income families obtain financial access to a faith-based education.
He said that as more states use vouchers or tax credits, it improves the likelihood of other states adopting them, noting that "the more we can demonstrate success, the easier it is to debunk the myths out there and to say it is in our best interest to put educational choice on the table."
Schoenig said school choice provides unique opportunities for Catholic schools that the church should be "taking more advantage of." For example, he said, there are "400,000 empty seats in Catholic schools nationwide and approximately 36 percent (of them) are in states that have a school-choice program."
Recent Catholic school closings, he added, may provide an impetus for creative thinking about ways to ensure these schools remain vital, such as lobbying for and tapping into school-choice legislation.
"We shouldn't be afraid of what will happen if we work to transform Catholics schools, but we should be afraid of what will happen if we don't do anything," he stressed.
Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Catholic Education, said the bishops have "supported and referenced parental choice for years," particularly as a social justice issue.
She said they emphasize "parental choice" instead of school choice in discussing the issue to highlight their support for parents' right to choose the best education for their children.
Sister John Mary said the issue was a top priority of Harrisburg Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Catholic Education, who died May 2 while attending a meeting of Pennsylvania's Catholic bishops.
The bishop supported scholarship tax credit programs in Pennsylvania, where companies or individuals receive credit for donating to nonprofit groups that provide students with scholarships.
She said his work on the issue inspired him to urge other bishops to similarly support legislation to enable low-income families to attend religious schools.
In January, 40 bishops met in Washington to discuss school-choice options and how Catholic leaders can be more involved. Sister John Mary noted that when bishops have been active in promoting some type of school-choice legislation, it often passes. But she also stressed that the bishops approach this with "their eyes open" being sure to avoid school and government entanglement and federal and state officials "reaching into Catholic education."
Bishop McFadden's promotion of school choice was praised by the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, which described the bishop as a "tireless advocate." The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference said he was effective in public policy was because of his "willingness to engage with legislators and his ease around all people."
Sister John Mary called the work his mission.
"We're going to miss him," she said. "His work on this was wonderful."
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