“I’m failing in school. I try, but I’m not making it. I just don’t want to take another test and see another bad grade. A lot of kids in my class don’t try at all. A friend and a cousin go to a Catholic school, but my family can’t afford that. My mom tells me the law won’t allow her to send me to another public school, or help her with the money for Catholic school. I feel bad because we don’t have any choice. I’m ready to give up.”
Those are not the words of a public school student. But they could very well be. Children of families without the means to afford a Catholic or other private school tuition often are trapped in poorly performing public schools. Those families can’t afford the tuition, nor are they allowed to send their children to better public schools. Public charter schools have proliferated in recent years, but they are not for everyone. Their various academic specialties (technology, arts, trades, sciences) distinguish them from the broad-based academic experience of district schools and especially Catholic schools.
Catholic schools have a long and distinguished history of providing children an excellent education. Help to come up with tuition to attend them comes in many forms. Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) offers a way for businesses to apply a credit on their state taxes to scholarship organizations, which helps many families pay tuition.
Gov. Tom Corbett announced his plan for reforming education in the state during a press conference in York Oct. 11. Two aspects of his plan, boosting EITC funding to $100 million from the current $75 million and introducing school choice vouchers, have long been championed by the state’s Catholic bishops and Catholic parents.
Opportunity scholarships, as vouchers have been termed by Corbett, represent the best opportunity to help the neediest students. Under his plan, only students who currently attend failing public schools and whose families annually earn 130 percent of the federal poverty level would receive a full scholarship. Families at 185 percent of the poverty line would receive 75 percent of the scholarship.
Hard numbers on scholarship amounts at this time are hard to come by. For starters, details in specific legislative bills or administrative regulations have yet to be presented. And the numbers depend on the level of state subsidies to school districts, which vary from district to district across the state.
Certainly, opportunity scholarships would introduce an element of fairness that is now lacking. Parents should be able to transfer their child out of a failing public school – applying an effective prod toward improvement ‑ and into a better school district or nonpublic school.
Catholic schools are already primed to teach children who want to succeed, and to do so before those kids lose heart. Vouchers would help parents make the best choice for their child’s future. If the current system would trap children in bad schools despite ever-increasing state education funding over recent years, then the time has come to change the rules and allow a new model for excellence. All of Pennsylvania’s children deserve no less.
The Catholic Church’s educational mission stands ready to help them. Voice your support for opportunity scholarships to your state representative and senator. Visit or write to them without delay. Help children discover that they are not failures, even if their school is. For the sake of justice, school choice reform must be enacted in Pennsylvania.