Pittsburgh Diocese: Blurring the lines between church and state?

Lobby for school vouchers or lose your financial aid.

That was the essence of a memo to school principals in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh last month.

But as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, the diocese quickly disavowed the memo, issuing its own directive, saying its author had "misstated longstanding diocesan policy relative to the distribution of financial aid to parents."

The memo flap comes amid a pitched battle in the state Capitol over the implementation of school tuition vouchers. The program, supported by Gov. Corbett and GOP leaders in the General Assembly, would redirect a percentage of funding from the state's basic education budget to provide financial assistance for low-income students to attend private school. 

The legislation is opposed by the public education establishment, namely school boards and teachers' unions, and has been endorsed by Catholic schools and many charter schools.

The Philadelphia archdiocese has been very vocal in its support of vouchers and has sent busloads of students to Harrisburg to rally on behalf of voucher legislation, but there is no indication a similar memo was sent to principals there.

The Pittsburgh memo, authored by Ronald Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development, began "we must be relentless in our efforts to help pass school choice this year. I am asking you to inform parents that have received tuition assistance that they must contact their legislators and return the contact form attached to you in order to receive a grant next year. I then want you to return these contact forms to me. This way we can insure that a solid effort is being carried out by our diocese."

The attached forms ask for the date, the name of the parent and the school, the name of the state senator and state representative, the number of times contacted and how, the legislator's position and "if oppose, why?"

After learning of the memo, the diocese conducted an investigation before sending out its corrective email, the Post-Gazette reported.

That email explained that Bowes "incorrectly stated that tuition assistance grants for parents would be contingent on whether or not they had contacted their state legislators in support of school choice. This is simply not true and I would ask that you be sure to share this memo with all your parents."

The diocese is not "requiring recipients of [tuition assistance] funding to provide documentation of their contacts with the state offices,"

The letter went on to note if parents "wish to voluntarily inform you that such contacts have been made, it would help in [monitoring] our collective efforts and contacts being made throughout our six-county area."



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