The recent announcements of the Blue Ribbon Commission in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have motivated many people to action on the issue of school choice. The need for major restructuring in Catholic schools is a vivid example of why school choice is necessary:
Current parents are struggling to choose the best school for their child. As those who have been following the school choice debate know so well, vouchers and an increase to the Educational Improvement Tax Credits (EITC) would have helped the burden felt by families and schools across our region.
Where does the issue of school choice stand? Senate Bill 1, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, passed the Senate in late October by a vote of 27-22. In the final days of the 2011 session, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives did not take up the issue of vouchers to the great disappointment of school choice proponents across the state. The voucher proposal discussed by House leadership was vastly different than Senate Bill 1; ultimately, neither Senate Bill 1 nor this different language was put before the House for a vote.
However, the issue of school choice is still active, with Gov. Tom Corbett and other members of legislative leadership voicing support for vouchers each day. While the final version of the voucher program is not yet known, it is likely that it will begin by helping families in failing school districts.
While vouchers may not be available to all families immediately, they will help low-income families and will free up EITC, diocesan and parish funding that can assist both low- and middle-income families now.
School choice will help increase enrollment by allowing even more families the opportunity to receive a Catholic education. These new students will help keep Catholic schools vibrant, accessible and available to more families.
Some school choice opponents worry that this legislation is anti-public schools. School choice is not a public vs. private school issue; in fact, public and private schools are partners in meeting the educational needs of our Commonwealth. For some students, the local public school is a good fit; for others, a private or Catholic school may work better.
Financially, just as public schools received significant increases in funding after the EITC program was introduced, so too will they receive funding when vouchers are passed.
For example, if every student who qualifies under Senate Bill 1 takes a voucher in the first year, their scholarships will cost the state 0.28 percent of the overall education budget. That is only 28 cents for every $100 that will still be allocated to public schools.
Further, local tax monies remain at the school and the state subsidy for schools that are not on the list of failing schools will not be affected.
The December inaction on vouchers in the House is disappointing, especially for those who see school choice as a social justice issue. As Archbishop Chaput wrote in his Jan. 12 column on CatholicPhilly.com, “To put it simply: Vouchers are a matter of parental rights and basic justice.”
However, school choice legislation is still before the Pa. legislature. Families can channel their energy into ensuring that this legislation passes, thus creating a more just and equitable educational system in our state. Contact your legislator by going to www.pacatholic.org/advocacy.