House speaker lends legislative support to Catholic schools
House Speaker John Boehner poses with Catholic school children and Cardinal Donald Wuerl
House Speaker John Boehner poses with Catholic school children and Cardinal Donald Wuerl
By Benjamin Mann

.- Speaker of the House John Boehner (R–Ohio) showed his support for Catholic education and school choice on Jan. 26, announcing the introduction of a bill that would restore funding for school vouchers in Washington, D.C.

“There’s only one program in America where the federal government allows parents from lower-income families to choose the schools that are best for their children, and it’s right here in D.C.,” Boehner said in a morning press conference, announcing his plan to restore funding to the program along with Senator Joe Lieberman (I–Conn.).

“The D.C. program provides a model that I believe can work well in other communities around the nation,” the speaker said. “It should be expanded, not ended.”

The D.C. program first received authorization in 2004, and enabled 1,700 children to attend private schools. On average, four families applied for each single scholarship that was given, and just over half of the parents who received the vouchers chose to send their children to Catholic schools. President Obama defunded the program in 2009.

Boehner is placing a high priority on his bipartisan effort to restore vouchers in the nation's capital. The D.C. voucher restoration proposal is the only bill he plans to sponsor during this session of Congress.

The previous evening, he had indicated his support for Catholic education by inviting several guests from Washington, D.C.'s Catholic schools, along with the district's Cardinal Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, to share the Speaker's Box at his first State of the Union address. The school representatives were involved with the Consortium of Catholic Academies, which benefited from D.C.'s school voucher program before its defunding.

The 2011 State of the Union address took place during the Jan. 23-29 National School Choice Week – an event highlighting the potential of school vouchers, charter schools, tax credits, and other educational alternatives.

Following Republicans' mid-term electoral gains last year, school choice advocates are once again hoping to advance their cause.

Sr. Dale McDonald, Director of Public Policy and Educational Research at the National Catholic Educational Association, told CNA that she and her colleagues  were “particularly encouraged” by Rep. Boehner's effort to restore D.C.'s “very successful” Opportunity Scholarship initiative.

She noted that Virginia, Indiana, and New Jersey were giving serious consideration to expanding vouchers or scholarship tax credits. A bill in the Colorado state house would also create income tax credits for private education. The first bill introduced into Pennsylvania's state legislature during its current session is, like the Boehner-Lieberman proposal, a bipartisan effort to fund low-income students' attendance at private schools.

Sean McAleer, head of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, told CNA on Jan. 25 that the new proposal was receiving unprecedented support from both Democrats and Republicans.

A decade ago, he said, many Pennsylvanians were “somewhat on the fence” on the question of providing educational vouchers and tax credits to low-income families.

“This time, it's a total change,” McAleer remarked. “The public outcry has been unbelievable. They understand that we have to do better for our kids.”

McAleer recalled that in 2010, both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor came out in favor of school choice measures, something he said had “never happened” in the past. Likewise, Senate Bill 1 –the act providing for opportunity scholarships and educational tax credits– was introduced in the state legislature on Jan. 25, with 17 bipartisan cosponsors.

McAleer chalked up the growing support for vouchers and tax credits to a growing frustration with many public schools' failure to improve, even after significant reinvestment.

“What we've done in the past is not working,” he explained. “We spent $23 billion on education last year. People are disappointed in the failures that are offered to them, and they're demanding more choice.”

The National Catholic Educational Association, which is participating in this year's National School Choice Week, regards the expansion of educational options as a matter of social justice for low-income families. “The gospel mandate to care for the poor and vulnerable among us motivates NCEA and our members to advocate for educational justice,” Sr. McDonald stated.

Schools that accept vouchers, she said, often do so at a financial loss to themselves. “The voucher programs are based on the published tuition of the school,” she explained, “not the per-pupil cost, which is thousands of dollars more than tuition covers.”

Sr. McDonald said that participating schools were willing to make this sacrifice, because of a fundamental conviction. “They believe that social justice requires that all parents, especially those of low and limited income, should not be denied the opportunity to provide their children with a good education.”

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