Catholic school advocates press Trump to strengthen school choice programs

Members of Chicago's St. Malachy School drum corps play during a rally for school choice outside an Illinois state building in Chicago in September 2014. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World) Members of Chicago's St. Malachy School drum corps play during a rally for school choice outside an Illinois state building in Chicago in September 2014. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

As he campaigned for president, Donald J. Trump promised repeatedly that should he be elected, he would push for a massive $20 billion investment in charter and private schools, including Catholic schools, through a federal scholarship tax credit program. But eight months into his presidency, advocates of “school choice” wonder if the president will be able to deliver on his promise.

“Right now, I’m cautiously optimistic,” Dale McDonald, P.B.V.M., the director of public policy for the National Catholic Education Association, told America. Still, Sister McDonald pointed to past efforts at implementing school choice programs that have fallen short and acknowledged the pathway is littered with obstacles.

Advertisement

In March, the Trump administration proposed a budget that included $1 billion for an unspecified school choice program, along with $250 million in grants meant to help families pay for private school. (The president’s budget also axed the Department of Education’s budget by more than $9 billion.)

In March, the Trump administration proposed a budget that included $1 billion for an unspecified school choice program, along with $250 million in grants meant to help families pay for private school.

Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education and a school choice proponent, praised the president’s proposals about expanding scholarship programs at the federal level back in May—but she said states must take the lead.

“When it comes to education, no solution, not even ones we like, should be dictated or run from Washington, D.C.,” Ms. DeVos said in a speech to the American Federation for Children in May, promising the audience of school choice advocates that the president would deliver “the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history.”

Her speech drew quick condemnation from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who called the president’s proposals “a reverse Robin Hood strategy of robbing schools of investments that work for kids, like after-school programs, to pay for [Ms. DeVos’s] pet privatization and voucher programs.”

The nation’s 6,400 Catholic elementary and high schools educate a total of nearly 1.9 million students.

The House of Representatives seemed to take the wind out of the president’s sails, responding in July with its own budget blueprint, which both chopped school choice provisions and softened education-related budget cuts. Now school choice advocates say the best bet for action could come with Republican-backed proposals for tax reform, which congressional and White House leaders hope to begin crafting in September and pass before the end of the year.

“The fact that the House took it out of the budget is not encouraging,” Sister McDonald said. But “if they get around to tax reform, it could be part of the tax program.”

Many Catholic school systems have been searching for new funding opportunities in recent years. The nation’s 6,400 Catholic schools educate nearly 1.9 million students, but since 2006, about 20 percent of Catholic schools across the United States have been shuttered, according to the N.C.E.A.

Tax credit scholarship programs currently operate in 17 states, according tothe National Conference of State Legislatures. Though each state has its own rules, the programs are usually structured to allow individuals or businesses to donate to nonprofit scholarship organizations. In return, the donors can then deduct part of the donation, or sometimes the full amount, from their state tax obligation.

Tax credit scholarship programs differ from voucher programs, which funnel government dollars to parents to use at private or religious schools.

Catholic schools are attracting more diverse students and even a large number of non-Catholics.

Public school supporters point to recent studies that show some students regressed in math after using vouchers to attend private schools, while other critics argue that they violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. Thirty-seven states prohibit government support for faith-based schools, with state constitutional amendments tracing their roots to the 19th century, when James G. Blaine, a Republican speaker of the House, fought at the federal level to prevent government funding of Catholic schools.

A recent Supreme Court decision, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which ruled that government money could be used to construct a playground at a church, was celebrated by some voucher advocates. They hope that state Blaine Amendments can now be successfully challenged in court. That could be important to school choice advocates, as the expansion of tax credit scholarship programs at the state level has proven difficult in recent years, even in states controlled by Republicans, who have been more receptive to school choice programs.

Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, proposed creating a tax credit scholarship program in his state but met overwhelming opposition from members of his party who control both houses of the state legislature. In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner, also a Republican, has been unsuccessful in his push to create a tax credit scholarship program as the state legislatureconsiders how to fund schools. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Cardinal Blase Cupich met with Mr. Rauner to offer support for the scholarship program.

Thirty-seven states prohibit government support for faith-based schools, with state constitutional amendments tracing their roots to the 19th century,

“Unfortunately, over time this has become a Republican issue,” Sister McDonald said. “We tried to keep it apolitical, and we look at it as helping all parents as the primary educators of their children.”

But even when Democratic leaders back tax credit scholarship programs, there is no guarantee that bills will become laws. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has failed to rally enough support to implement a program, even with vocal support from Catholic leaders in the state.

Earlier this year, President Trump called on Congress “to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth” that would allow parents “to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York responded to the speech in a Wall Street Journal op-ed article, pointing to unsuccessful efforts in New York and arguing that “a national solution is needed to bring relief to families who need it.”

“I have seen firsthand why Catholic families and leaders support scholarship tax credits. They help advance educational and economic justice. They strengthen society by creating opportunity for those who might not otherwise have it,” he wrote.

For her part, Sister McDonald says she wants “to see the president keep his promise” on school choice by creating “a program that is available in all 50 states.”

“We want to support parents on what’s best for their kids,” she continued. “Hopefully that’s Catholic school, but if that’s not their choice, we’d still support it.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert Killoren
2 months ago

Government vouchers that let kids go to Catholic schools sounds like a great idea, especially for inner cities. It is not. Federal money will kill Catholic schools. It is a cancer. Only one way to make Catholic schools affordable and accessible especially in the inner city: All Catholics have to care enough to sacrifice and freely give money to support it whether they have kids in school or not. It is not truly Catholic education if only the well-off can obtain it..

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

It is astonishing to think that God would choose to enter the world this way: as a fragile newborn who could not even hold up his own head without help.
Ginny Kubitz MoyerOctober 20, 2017
Protestors rally to support Temporary Protected Status near the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Around 200,000 Salvadorans and 57,000 Hondurans have been residing in the United States for more than 15 years under Temporary Protected Status. But that status is set to expire in early 2018.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 20, 2017
At the heart of Anne Frank’s life and witness is a hopeful faith in humanity.
Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J.October 20, 2017
Forensic police work on the main road in Bidnija, Malta, which leads to Daphne Caruana Galizias house, looking for evidence on the blast that killed the journalist as she was leaving her home, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. Caruana Galizia, a harsh critic of Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat, and who reported extensively on corruption on Malta, was killed by a car bomb on Monday. (AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud)
Rarely does the death of a private citizen elicit a formal letter of condolence from the Pope.