.- As U.S. Catholic schools gear up for a new academic year, some have seen a spike in enrollment due to more states offering school voucher programs.
“The school choice movement has picked up during this last year and it's gained a lot of momentum,” Sr. Dale McDonald, director of Public Policy and Educational Research at the National Catholic Educational Association, told CNA in an Aug. 30 interview.
As of August 2011, 18 states as well as the District of Columbia have enacted policies that support school vouchers.
“School choice should be promoted because parents are the primary educators of their children and should have the right to choose the best school,” Sr. Dale stressed.
Although some parents have the means to send their children to their preferred school, “others are denied that choice because of their economic situation,” she pointed out.
“We've always felt that parents of low and modest income should have the kind of choices that parents of higher income have for their children.”
Sr. Dale's remarks come just months after Speaker of the House John Boehner (R–Ohio) showed his support for Catholic education and school choice.
During the week of the State of the Union Address on Jan. 26, he announced the introduction of a bill that restored funding for school vouchers in Washington, D.C.
Although the D.C. program first received authorization in 2004 – and enabled 1,700 children to attend private schools – President Obama defunded the program in 2009.
Speaker Boehner's efforts, which included meeting personally with several Catholic education officials, were seen “not only a symbolic commitment to choice but something that was very much in demand by the parents here in D.C.,” Sr. Dale recalled.
She noted that the D.C. program set an example which other states are beginning to follow.
In April, the Indiana Legislature provided vouchers that allow low-and middle-income families to use public funds to help pay private school tuition.
The Indiana program, which is only the second statewide program in country, has enabled 240 religious schools, mostly Catholic, to enroll students with vouchers.
“The Indiana voucher program is a big one this year,” Sr. Dale said. “It's a victory that we're happy to promote.”
A victory, however, that may be short lived.
Opponents of the program recently filed a lawsuit claiming it violates the Indiana constitution's required separation of church and state, given that most of the non-public schools so far approved for the voucher program have religious affiliations.
Other states have encountered similar obstacles.
In Colorado, Denver judge Michael Martinez ordered the state’s Douglas County to immediately stop its scholarship program on Aug. 12. Judge Martinez similarly ruled that the initiative violates provisions in the state's constitution.
“I think it's a weak argument,” Sr. Dale said in response to the claim that vouchers threaten to blur the line between church and state.
“If the scholarship is given to the parents and the parents make the choice about where to go to school, then the government hasn't made the choice – it's provided parents with a check to make the choice.”
Sr. Dale likened vouchers to Medicare or other government assistance.
“When you're given a Medicare check or a Social Security check, you can spend it however you want it,” she said. “If I take my Social Security check and decide to give it all to the Church, nobody questions it – this is the same thing.”
“This is giving parents the money to make the choice,” she underscored. “Not all of these vouchers are used for religious schools. Some are independent or private schools.”
Sr. Dale said that an improved understanding of how vouchers actually work will eventually show individuals that “constitutionally, school choice can be supported.”