Archbishop: Pass voucher bill now - or else

When I decided in February to keep four financially distressed archdiocesan high schools open, I said that school vouchers and expanded tax credits for scholarships are urgently needed — and not just sometime in the future, but right now, during the current legislative session. If such legislation had been enacted a decade ago, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia would not have had to consider closing or consolidating elementary and high schools this year.

What I noted in February is even more pressing today: Without new scholarship tax credits and school vouchers to relieve costs, more archdiocesan schools will close soon, and more of the financial burden of educating young people will fall on the public.

I made my earlier remarks quite consciously in the presence of many of our representatives in Harrisburg, because they alone have the power to pass such legislation. While they already know my personal views on the issue, they have also heard in recent months from many of the roughly 1.4 million Catholics in the archdiocese who believe this legislation is necessary. The archdiocese's Voucher Sunday saw more than 500 of our high school students passionately advocating for their education; there were rallies at our high schools and at City Hall; and legislators received thousands of phone calls, e-mails, and letters on the subject. One thing should now be clear at the Capitol: Catholics are motivated and engaged on this issue, and they expect action.

The best bill

While a variety of relevant proposals have been floated, legislation introduced this week by State Rep. Jim Christiana (R., Beaver) is especially strong. It could create nearly 20,000 scholarships for archdiocesan schools as of September.

Christiana's bill would add $25 million in funding for the existing $75 million Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which provides tax credits for scholarships to private schools. It would also create an Educational Improvement Scholarship Credit to fund additional "opportunity scholarships" at $100 million in 2012-13, $150 million in 2013-14, and $200 million in 2014-15. The latter would be available only to students at public schools performing in the bottom 15 percent statewide.

Poll

Do you support taxpayer funded vouchers to pay for Catholic school tuition?

Funded by tax-credited contributions for designated organizations, this program would not take money away from public schools. This is of particular concern in Philadelphia and for the archdiocese, as many Catholic children attend public schools.

The bill would also help students with physical and learning disabilities by providing additional funds for their education. The archdiocese has four elementary schools providing special education and, at the high school level, the Bonaventure and Drexel programs, which address learning disabilities. We welcome the opportunity to serve even more students who can benefit from these schools and programs if this legislation passes.

The Christiana bill has many of the key components of legislation that has passed one or the other chamber of the legislature with bipartisan support. And some of the most determined opponents of school vouchers are willing to support it.

Unhappy alternative

Such support should spur immediate action in Harrisburg. But we continue to read and hear about other, more problematic pieces of legislation taking priority over Christiana's bill. I'm also keenly aware of arguments that there just isn't any money for this sort of program. My response to that is simple: Our legislators can make the right kind of investment in the future of our children now, or they can pay a lot more later for the damage done to young people by shortsighted educational policies.

Whether it's in reading, math, graduation rates, or truancy, too many schools are failing our children. And many parents, with just a little extra help, could choose better schools for their children. Maybe many of them would choose Catholic schools, where children of all races and faiths are educated, or maybe they would choose other faith-affiliated schools, nondenominational schools, or even other public schools.

Whatever their choice, they can't make it right now. As a result, too many families are resigned to substandard education.

We simply can't live with this sort of failure any longer. As many thousands of Catholics have said in a clear and collective voice in recent weeks, it's time to give all students a chance by giving parents a choice.

The Pennsylvania legislature should commit itself to significantly increasing funding for school choice immediately. Many other issues may or may not have merit, but most of them can wait another year. Our children cannot.

Inaction on the Christiana bill would be a painful dismissal of the needs and advocacy of legislators' constituents. And it would have unhappy results for everyone in our state — lawmakers and constituents alike.

Charles J. Chaput is the archbishop of Philadelphia.

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