America’s Catholic schools have been called a “national treasure,” yet not everyone is willing to help preserve them with tax dollars.
Opposition to federal aid for such schools likely will arise as Congress prepares the next coronavirus stimulus package. President Donald Trump has asked that it include funds for scholarships to pay tuition for private and religious school students and tax credits for business and individual donations to the scholarship programs.
A U.S. Department of Education policy that was to make sure private schools receive an equitable share of aid allocated for schools under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act has already been challenged in a federal court complaint filed by the states of Michigan, California, Maine, New Mexico and Wisconsin and the District of Columbia. CARES funds can be used for personal protective equipment, cleaning, remote-education training and distance-education tools. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has said the policy tips the scales in favor of private schools, leaving her state’s public-school students behind.
The same view, that public schools will suffer if money is given to private-school students, is expected to be raised in the debate over funding in the stimulus package. Yet, as Ray Domanico, director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, has pointed out, a collapse in private-school enrollment could undermine public education at a time when it already is distressed. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 130 Catholic schools have announced permanent closure this year, and another 10% are uncertain of their future.
Furthermore, added Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, all schools, not just public ones, should benefit from the money being spent to prop up and restore businesses, health-care providers and other organizations following the coronavirus shutdown.
“There is no zero-sum game here. Anyone who says that supporting and subsidizing a school, no matter what school, when that school in particular serves the public, somehow is bad for public education has one agenda only,” Allen said. “The agenda of the educational establishment, and particularly teacher unions, is not to lose their power and control over a system that has dramatically failed most students. … If they were about kids, they would welcome any institution that’s serving kids well continuing to be open and thriving.”
The Need to Speak Up
Allen said those opposing an outlay of money to private-school students are conflating the decades-old debate over publicly funded vouchers and scholarships with funneling federal dollars to save institutions that have been closed through no fault of their own. Such aid, she said, should include any institution that serves the public good or serves the economy.
“Opponents are saying, ‘Don’t give money to Catholic schools because somehow it hurts everyone else.’ This is like saying, ‘Don’t give money to one hospital; give it to another.’ ... It’s a misappropriation of concern,” she said.
That said, Allen expects Congress will have a more difficult time saying No to including private schools in the stimulus package because an increasing number of supporters have been speaking up.
“If people can keep up the pressure, particularly minority families who are well-served by Catholic schools, we may have a chance of sustaining that support,” she said
Indeed, an effort by the USCCB to organize grassroots support for including Catholic schools in the stimulus bill had generated 50,000 contacts to Congress just a few days after an action alert went out. The U.S. bishops are requesting that Congress set aside 10% of any funds for K-12 education for scholarships and families attending private schools. About 10% of K-12 students go to private or religious schools.
Additionally, Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, California, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education, announced his committee recently joined a coalition of more than 150 interfaith and other organizations who are asking Congress for immediate federal relief in the form of scholarship aid for low-to-middle-income private-school families and a tax credit for donations to state scholarship organizations.
Jennifer Daniels, associate director for public policy for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Catholic Education, said in the debate over public funding of private education, it is important to note that private schools are not asking for direct funding.
“Parents are the first educators of their children,” she said,” and we’re asking that they be given choice and not be assigned a school based on their zip code. This is not about public versus private, religious versus nonreligious. It’s what is the best school for that child.”
Daniels added that the Supreme Court has upheld on multiple occasions that as long as public money goes to families, there is no constitutional impediment. The recent Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue decision, she said, took this one step further, saying that if a state decides it is going to offer families the ability to have some of their tax dollars used for the school of their choice, religious schools cannot be excluded as an option.
“The talking points you hear in opposition are simply based on the goals of those that want to have that monopoly over education,” she said, “and not allow parents to have a say in their child’s education.”
Focusing on Families
Darla Romfo, president of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, said any discussion about private-school funding should focus not on schools, but on the family and the principle that parents are the first educators of their children. “Everything follows from that. Schools exist because parents decide that’s the vehicle they want for their kids to be educated according to their values, faith and how they want them to learn.”
Romfo said despite a perception that Americans oppose choice in education, a poll released in January by the American Federation for Children showed that 69% of voters support school choice, and 78% favor Education Freedom Scholarships, as contained in legislation backed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
“School choice really is about funding families and kids, not the schools,” Romfo told a recent Manhattan Institute forum on “Education After COVID.” The coronavirus, she said, has created a perfect storm of events, affecting the economics of families and their ability to pay private-school tuition. Immediate relief is needed, she said. “These are all our kids, and they’re not any less important because they’re 10% of the total.”
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.