The Catholic University of America

Dec. 2, 2011

Conference: School Choice is Social Justice Concern

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Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington and Catholic University chancellor, addresses a Nov. 30 conference on educational tax credits.

At a conference this week at Catholic University, advocates for measures to expand school choices for disadvantaged families celebrated a “watershed” year and described the efforts as a work of “social justice.”

The Nov. 30 conference centered on tuition or scholarship tax credits — an amount deducted from the tax bill of an individual or business that provides scholarship funds so a child can attend a school of his or her parent’s choice. Such scholarships give poor and middle class families access to options other families have outside standard, tax-funded government-run schools.

“Diversification in education is…part of our history, the recognition that we’re a pluralistic society, that we approach things out of all kinds of heritages and backgrounds, and we bring that diversification, or at least we should, to our educational enterprise,” observed Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington and Catholic University chancellor, in the keynote lecture at the conference.

Expanding parents’ options by allowing their tax dollars to “follow the child” to whichever school the parents choose helps provide the child a “level playing field,” said Cardinal Wuerl.

The Archdiocese of Washington runs 67 schools in the area — including in the poorest sections of the city — and regularly provides need-based scholarship assistance. In those Catholic schools, Cardinal Wuerl said “the children are treated as if they are what they really are, individuals made in the image and likeness of God and worth all of our effort and attention.” Those children find, he added, “a sense of worth, a sense of security, the time and environment to actually begin to learn.”

In two panel discussions, legislative and legal experts outlined the status of and strategies for enacting scholarship tax credits through state legislation. About 50 people attended, including directors of state Catholic conferences and representatives from national think-tanks and advocacy groups like the National Catholic Educational Association.

“We really have made a lot of progress,” noted John Schilling of the American Federation for Children, citing the enactment or strengthening of scholarship tax credit or voucher programs from the nation’s capital to Wisconsin. Thanks to the elections of a number of “reform-minded” governors and legislators, he said, 42 states have 96 school choice programs on the books now.

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Advocates for measures to expand school choices for disadvantaged families listen to Cardinal Wuerl's keynote lecture.

There are many considerations when drafting legislation for educational tax credits, said Robert Aguirre of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders. According to Aguirre, bills should identify what percent of the tax-credited donations must be used for scholarships; what expenses are eligible to be paid, such as tuition, book fees, and transportation; whether and what level of means testing will be applied; and what requirements — like accreditation — a school must meet to participate in the program.

Marie Powell of the Office of Education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) urged advocates to point out that educating children through scholarship tax credit programs saves money for state governments that now are looking for ways to economize in tight times. The revenue a state loses when granting an educational tax credit is less than the state’s cost of educating that same student.

In a question and answer period, Michael Guerra of the American Center for School Choice observed that enacting measures like educational tax credits is “good for families and good for kids” and is an issue of “social justice” that’s consistent with Catholic thought. The advocates, he added, should focus on the single mother who says, “‘I don’t want my kids bused to the other side of town. Why can’t I pick a school for my kid like everybody else?’”

“Where is the harm when you…let the family decide?” posed Robert Destro, Catholic University law school professor.

John Carr of the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development said that educational tax credits are examples of solidarity and subsidiarity, two principles of Catholic social teaching expressed by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. “We’re in this together,” explained Carr. “When whole parts of our community get lousy education that diminishes all of us.” And he added, “We need local responses to big national problems.”

The Catholic Church holds that parents, not the government, have the right to choose how their child is educated.

The conference was hosted by Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, an academic think-thank on public policy issues related to Catholic social teaching, and the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders.


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