Marlene Ruiz never went to Catholic school, but the Bronx, N.Y., resident has always wanted her five boys to have the opportunity to do so. Recently, she got a phone call that made her dream possible.

Ruiz, 37, was one of thousands of parents last month who won a Children's Scholarship Fund grant, a privately funded scholarship or “voucher” program which helps parents choose where to send their children to school. While publicly funded school vouchers are slowly being approved in some cities and states, about 60 private programs, largely the initiatives of business leaders, have sprung up in 25 cities around the country.

The Church has welcomed these programs, believing that children should not be forced by circumstances to attend a public school if it is inadequate, and that parents paying parochial school tuitions should not be burdened with the weight of a full school tax.

In the opinion of Catherine T. Hickey, superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of New York, the Children's Scholarship Fund addresses a “major justice issue.”

“The poor are being denied adequate education,” she said.

And with 40,000 scholarships awarded, the fund will impact Catholic schools “significantly,” predicted Oblate of St. Francis Father William Davis, representative for Catholic schools and federal assistance for the U.S. Catholic Conference. “I expect a lot of inner-city kids will take these scholarships to Catholic schools,” he told the Register. “We're there. Basically, our schools are in the urban centers.”

Better Than Vouchers

While not without their opponents, the private scholarship programs offers benefits that cannot be assured by government-financed voucher programs. In short, any involvement by Church-run schools with the governments comes with risks that the faith will be compromised.

Some of the public voucher programs include “opt out” clauses that allow non-Catholic students to be excused from religious classes and services. “We're not going to compromise our Catholic values and identity for vouchers,” said Hickey, the superintendent.

Plainly put, her schools will not take children if they want to skip religion classes. When applying for admission, students and parents are told by the principal, “We are not ecumenical schools. Children are expected to learn the Catholic faith and participate in services,” Hickey said.

Besides, schools of the New York Archdiocese have a values-based program where morals are infused into all subjects.

Msgr. Hugh F. McManus, former vicar for education in the archdiocese, sees a threat to the Catholic identity of parochial schools from public vouchers, much as Catholic colleges tended to water down Catholic doctrine after taking federal aid.

“It's important to make sure our schools don't lose their autonomy,” he said. “When government control follows government dollars, you're in trouble.”

But that threat is not likely to come from private initiatives. “I can't understand why a private foundation that is helping kids go to religious schools would tell those schools how they should be run,” said the Catholic Conference's Father Davis, who knows of no private scholarship funds with opt-opt provisions.

Public vouchers face an uphill battle, with powerful teachers unions clamoring that they would take much-needed financial resources from the public schools, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union launching legal challenges on the basis of church-state separation.

But even private programs have come under attack from groups like the People for the American Way Foundation, which says it “monitors and researches the religious right movement and its political allies.” Carole Shields, president of the foundation, calls private efforts a “Trojan horse” for gaining public money for private schools.

The Business Community

Ted Forstmann, the billionaire senior partner of a leveraged buyout firm who spearheaded the Children's Scholarship Fund, denies that private scholarship funds are a way to get the electorate used to the idea of public voucher programs.

He said he sees the 1.25 million applications that came in for the scholarships as a “thunderous demonstration of dissatisfaction with the present system, and [a] demand for alternatives.” The applicants, he added, were willing to go along with the requirement that they foot part of the bill, up to $1,000 yearly.

Other private scholarship funds have proven just as popular, and Catholic schools — always a presence in the inner cities — stand to receive most of the students. One official at the Children's Scholarship Fund predicted that 60% to 75% will go to Catholic schools.

That was the case with the School Choice Scholarship Foundation, which grew out of an offer by Cardinal John O'Connor of New York to take the city's worst-performing students into parochial schools. It was a group of Wall Street executives who in 1996 raised enough money to put the plan into effect.

The School Choice Scholarship Foundation initially offered three-year scholarships to 1,200 pupils, valued at $1,400 a year, and a year later an additional 1,000 grants were made available. About 75% of scholarship winners attend Catholic schools.

“The kids all walked into school the first day with uniforms, and nobody knew who were the [scholarship] kids,” Hickey said.

Under most of the private scholarship programs, businessmen sponsor individual students in poor neighborhoods.

It is not surprise that members of the business community were among the first to spot the problems with public education. After all, business has a serious stake in the matter. A well-prepared work force — starting at the elementary level — are essential to compete in today's technologically advanced marketplace. At the College Scholarship Fund, for example, 28 of the 51 members of the board of advisers are business leaders.

The Results

How are the scholarship recipients faring academically?

After its first year, Harvard University's Paul Peterson compared students who received School Choice scholarships to students who applied but did not receive one. He found that test scores improved 4 percentage points in reading and 6 points in math, which he called a “significant” rise for one year.

In addition, he said, parents reported that the private and parochial schools were generally better environments for their children: the youngsters got more homework; classes were less disruptive; there was less cheating, tardiness and fighting; the schools were somewhat more racially integrated; schools and classes were smaller, and there was better communication between parents and teachers.

Those are the things Marlene Ruiz expects at Blessed Sacrament, where she plans to register her sons next fall. She wants her boys not only to learn enough to get them through high school and “become good citizens”; she also wants them to learn about their faith.

“We are very God-centered at Blessed Sacrament,” said Grace Chemi, principal. “Religion is a part of everything we do. We take an interest in the child and help where we can.”

One thing the boys won't see at Blessed Sacrament is a van which Planned Parenthood parks outside public schools around the city, dispensing information on contraceptives. One son brought home condoms from such a van one day. Blessed Sacrament teaches about AIDS, according to archdiocesan guidelines, but stresses the importance of abstinence.

Meanwhile, Catherine Hickey has something of a happy dilemma. While most of the students who signed up at Catholic schools in New York with School Choice Scholarship Foundation grants have stayed, the Forstmann initiative will likely fill up the few available seats. But, she said, “We're happy to have the kids.”

John Burger, correspondent for the Register, writes from New York.