During April of 2004, Blessed Pope John Paul II articulated the position of the Church on Catholic education for children in The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
The refusal to provide public economic support to non-public schools that need assistance and that render a service to civil society is to be considered an injustice. Blessed John Paul II proclaimed, “Whenever the State lays claim to an educational monopoly, it oversteps its rights and offends justice. . . .The State cannot without injustice merely tolerate so-called private schools. Such schools render a public service and therefore have a right to financial assistance.”
|No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith. Shutterstock photo|
The National Catholic Education Association reports that our Catholic schools save American taxpayers over $20 billion annually. Tragically, NCEA documents data to show that over one thousand Catholic schools have been closed within the last decade. Shifting demographics, rising costs and a deeply rooted national recession have challenged American Catholic families and educators greatly.
With this background, the Indiana Catholic Conference and the Indiana Non-Public Education Association worked tirelessly with the legislators and the executive branch to act boldly and decisively. On May 5, 2011, the Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels, signed historic legislation to provide what has been called the widest reaching, non–public school voucher program in the nation. Middle-class Catholic children residing in Indiana and those who qualify for free and reduced lunch now have access to funds for Catholic and non-public school tuition. Prior to the legislation titled The School Scholarship Act (House Bill 1003) in 2010, the Indiana General Assembly enacted laws allowing private donors who provide financial assistance to nonpublic schools to receive a tax credit that is applied toward the donor’s state tax liability; the newly acquired funds are awarded to children meeting income requirements who matriculate from public schools to Catholic schools. Five statewide scholarship-granting organizations were chartered in order to solicit tuition assistance for Catholic children with family income that is equal to up to 200 percent of free and reduced lunch income limits. These two laws propelled Indiana Catholic educators into a new era with great promise for families with children who could not previously afford the option of Catholic schools.
School principals had little time and few resources to begin enrolling children who qualified for vouchers. Typically, July is a month when principals schedule time to be with their families. During mid-June, the Indiana Department of Education established and promulgated rules and regulations, and provided details on how children could apply for school choice vouchers. Principals in Indiana reported committing over one hour per child for counseling, tours and discussions with parents who were considering enrolling children in Catholic schools. In most Catholic dioceses, few funds or plans were available for advertising to populations that might qualify for a school choice voucher; Indiana Catholics generally used “word of mouth” to share information about enrollment procedures and communicate with parents and legal guardians.
Many have inquired, “Will this law weaken our schools as Catholic academic schools? The Indiana law has a precise statement that protects our Catholic identity, ensures the school’s right to continue our comprehensive catechetical efforts, and gives parents the fundamental right to choose a school for their child. Concerns were expressed about government regulation; there is a clear restriction in the law that requires each schoolroom to display an American flag, keep paper copies of the U.S. and state Constitutions, Magna Carta and other documents, as well as a pledge not to teach children to overthrow the government. Catholic leaders in Indiana found nothing within the voucher law that restricts each child’s call to holiness, however. This was due to the significant work and diligence of a strong Indiana non-public school alliance and the leadership of Glenn Tebbe, Executive Director of the Indiana Catholic Conference. The Indiana Non-Public Education Association maintained ongoing communication about the law under the direction of John Elcesser, executive director of INPEA.
The voucher law requires students to matriculate from a public school to a non-public school. While no children enrolled in Catholic schools are qualified for voucher assistance, this caveat in the law created some dissention by public school officials. A lawsuit to halt the vouchers, fully expected by lawmakers, was filed. A judge denied an injunction, and during the summer the 2011 voucher law was implemented effectively and well.
A Road Map for Renewal
The media published information gleaned from church bulletins about vouchers. Transportation of low-income children remains a challenge. Reliance on public school busing has been limited due to complicated issues with schedules and calendars. Parents with children in poverty are aware that they have limited options to acquire funds for college tuition even if the child is well qualified after receiving a Catholic K-12 education.
Indiana is enriched greatly by a large Latino population residing throughout the state and concentrated largely in urban areas; due to the new opportunities for parents desiring a Catholic education for children, culture diversity required additional planning and resources for most schools in July 2011. On Dec. 12, 2009, the day of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Notre Dame Task Force on the Participation of Latino Children and Families in Catholic Schools disseminated a report nationally titled, To Nurture the Soul of a Nation: Latino Families, Catholic Schools and Educational Opportunity. This document proved to be Indiana’s primary framework in assisting principals to attract, enroll and retain Latino children in Catholic schools.
The Notre Dame Report quoted Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 address to teachers and principals at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. “Do not abandon the school apostolate; indeed, renew your commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”
The Alliance for Catholic Education, ACE of Notre Dame, offered principals and administrators a litany of practical, research-based strategies and effective best practices to assist those committed to enrolling Latino children throughout Indiana. Holy Cross Father Joseph Corpora, director of University–School partnerships, and Task Force Co-Chair, unselfishly provided in-service sessions statewide to Catholic educators, often celebrating Mass with our principals prior to opening his training sessions on critical Latino family issues linked to teaching and learning. The Report identifies barriers, data, and research, as well as opportunities for Latino families, which proved to be invaluable to our Catholic administrators.
At the time of this writing, Dec. 12, 2011, on The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Indiana Catholics are in a position to renew and perhaps restore many of our Catholic schools. Since the Notre Dame Report in 2009, Indiana Catholics have enrolled thousands of children who likely would not have imagined vouchers or any opportunity leading to participation in Catholic K-12 education. Challenges persist, but our resolve is strong to help make these opportunities available to all children who qualify.
The Indiana voucher law limited initial vouchers to 7,500 in 2011, 15,000 vouchers in the second year, and an unlimited number thereafter. About 4,000 students were assigned vouchers in Indiana making the Indiana School Choice legislation the most successful first-year voucher program in America. Eighty-five percent of students assigned vouchers in Indiana come from low-income families who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. Fifty-three percent of voucher students in Indiana represent minority families. The majority of vouchers were awarded to children who selected Catholic schools.
The Diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend serves about 14,000 students in 17 Indiana counties; conservatively, it is estimated that over 20,000 Latino children reside within the Catholic schools attendance area. It is entirely possible to attract young Catholic families to the inner city parishes with the vouchers now available.
ACE of Notre Dame refers to a K-12 education as the “Catholic School Advantage.” Children qualifying for free and reduced lunch have benefited from the voucher law. One mother of a child who was admitted with a voucher was offered a tour of Marian High School in Mishawaka, Ind. As the new parent entered the school chapel, she shed tears of joy. To paraphrase the words of the Holy Father, Catholics in Indiana have committed to “assure the long-term sustainability of our Catholic schools.”
According to national data, one in four children live in poverty in America today. Our Catholic schools have served the poor, the marginalized, and immigrants for over 150 years. The future of our Catholic faith in America depends on educating and catechizing children appropriately and well. In his Catholic University address to educators in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI shared some insight on our responsibilities to keep our schools strong for American Catholic children:
“The Catholic community here has in fact made education one of its highest priorities. This undertaking has not come without great sacrifice. Towering figures, like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and other founders and foundresses, with great tenacity and foresight, laid the foundations of what is today a remarkable network of parochial schools contributing to the spiritual well being of the Church and the nation. Some, like St. Katharine Drexel, devoted their lives to educating those whom others had neglected — in her case, African Americans and Native Americans. Countless dedicated religious sisters, brothers and priests together with selfless parents have, through Catholic schools, helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society.”
St. Theodore Guerin, one of eight American saints, founded the Catholic schools of the Diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend. Her legacy of faith and the work the early religious sisters, brothers, priests and bishops created, shaped and crystallized our present Catholic identity throughout Indiana.
The law is not perfect; the teachers and principals have much to do as they assume broader responsibilities. Policy-makers are working to ensure that state regulations won’t become burdensome to teachers and principals. Our pastors have labored greatly to adjust to a variety of challenges; parish members are opening their school doors and their Catholic hearts to new and diverse communities. Children and families are adjusting to new school standards. However, this much is clear: The “spiritual well-being of the Church and nation” has been placed firmly in the hands of priests and Catholic educators who serve our families faithfully, support our Church prayerfully and contribute to the formation of our children daily. TP
DR. MYERS, PH.D., is superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.