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Sitting in the gallery of the House of Representatives Tuesday night, as President Obama gave his State of the Union address, were Cardinal Donald Wuerl and five people connected with Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. They were there as guests of the man wielding the gavel and sitting behind the President: House Speaker John Boehner.
Boehner has something in common with Cardinal Wuerl, besides being Catholic – he’s a big believer in school choice programs.
“Speaker Boehner has been a fervent supporter of educational opportunities for all children in the District of Columbia, particularly through his support of the Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Cardinal Wuerl said in a Feb. 13 statement. “Children who reside in some of the neediest areas of our nation’s capital have the chance to receive a quality education through this highly successful program which is transforming the lives of so many young people in our community. In fact, this school year, there are 1,584 Opportunity Scholarship Program scholars attending private, parochial or independent elementary or high schools across the District. I am grateful to the Speaker for his continuing support of this successful program.”
That did not come without some struggle. The Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), the first federally-funded program of its kind, began in 2004. In April 2011, Congress passed the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR), to extend OSP for five more years beginning in the 2011-12 school year. President Obama zeroed out funding for the program in his 2013 budget, but Congress restored the funding to the tune of $20 million, says Jennifer Daniels, Director of Government Relations in the Archdiocese of Washington Catholic Schools Office. “Boehner has led the effort along with Senators (Joseph) Lieberman (retired Independent from Connecticut), [Susan] Collins [R-ME] and [Diane] Feinstein [D-CA],” she says. The Archdiocese was active in lobbying for the program from the start and in securing its reauthorization and continued funding.
Joining the cardinal at the State of the Union address were Arthur Mola, principal of Sacred Heart School in Washington; OSP scholars Laci Joseph and Zuri Franklin, fourth grade students at St. Anthony Catholic School in Northeast Washington; and their parents, Henry Joseph, III, and Robert Franklin, respectively.
Zuri Franklin’s favorite part of school is attending Mass, according to a press release issued by Boehner’s office. But being Catholic or attending Mass with your class is not a requirement for getting your tuition paid through OSP. Of the 52 schools that participate in the program, 21 are Catholic schools. Others are Christian, Islamic, Montessori, Quaker, and private. The archdiocesan schools that have the most Opportunity Scholars are the schools that have the most non-Catholic students, says Daniels.
“I was principal in a school that had 25-30 OSP students, and the majority of them were not Catholic,” says Marguerite Conley, executive director of the Archdiocese’s Consortium of Catholic Academies, which supports inner-city Catholic schools in D.C. The important thing from her perspective is that students make up a “community of learners” and that their parents are not stuck without a choice as to where to send their children to school.
“It gives parents a choice in the sense of where they send their students,” she says. “What they want may be different [from public schools] – maybe they want the value system, a different approach to discipline…the academic rigor and standards that we have.”
The program provides scholarships to enable low-income students in K-12 to attend private, public or public charter schools. To be eligible, families must be current D.C. residents, receive SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps), or have a family income of less than 185% of the poverty threshold.
“Our program offers families the ability to enroll their children into schools that best fit their student’s needs, particularly those who would otherwise attend schools identified as in need of improvement (SINI) under Section 1116 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965,” says the OSP website.
The voucher program allows parents to be selective, Conley says, “as they should be. They’re the primary educators and want the best for their child.” And while President Obama in his State of the Union address laid out a laundry list of proposals to improve American life in a number of areas – many of which required intervention from the highest level of government – the Catholic school pupils and their parents listening from the balcony could be thankful that in their case, there was a move away from reliance on government-run schools alone. Yes, it required government intervention to secure a greater choice for some Washington parents, but advocates of school choice see the movement away from the public school monopoly as a way to empower parents.
That empowerment may be better secured with greater attention to a principle espoused by Catholic social teaching, but which is not a Catholic principle per se: subsidiarity. Richard Myers, professor at Ave Maria Law School, argued in 2003 that the educational system in America interferes with religious liberty – particularly the liberty of parents to direct the education of their children – and that subsidiarity will play a key role in rectifying that situation. “There is really a need for a far broader reexamination of the state’s role in education,” Myers wrote in the Catholic Social Science Review. “This sort of reexamination will not be undertaken, however, unless we focus more directly on the key question – that is, whether the state or parents should have the ultimate responsibility for the education of our children.”
He explained subsidiarity thus: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”
“Under this view, we begin with the presumption that intermediate communities, such as the family or religious groups, have the primary responsibility for tasks such as education,” Myers wrote. “State action should be supportive of parental decisions regarding education, and state intervention in ways inconsistent with parental choices should only be justified in narrow cases when the intermediate community has demonstrated a serious inability to discharge its responsibility. The most desirable solution would be a more elaborate voucher scheme or even better (because it would limit the risk of state regulation) – a generous tax credit program, so that the option to avoid the public schools would be available to all, not just the wealthy.” Indeed, OSP believes that “parents should have the freedom to decide the best learning option,” according to the program’s website.
Jeff Reed, a spokesman for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, sees a definite trend nationwide toward more school choice. “In 2012, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania expanded their school choice programs while Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Virginia created their first-ever programs,” he says. “In 2011, Arizona, Colorado (Douglas County), Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Milwaukee created new school choice programs while North Carolina created its first-ever program. This year, Alaska, Tennessee, and Texas are looking to create their first such programs.”
The foundation, which seeks to advance the school choice vision of economist Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose, supports the Washington, D.C. program, but criticizes its limit of eligibility to 2,000 students per year. “There are no doubt students above the program’s income limits who would participate if given the opportunity,” the foundation says on its website. It points out that while the D.C. public school system allots $25,426 of revenue to each public school student, the Opportunity Scholarship Program makes less than 40% of that amount available to its participants. “All D.C. students should be treated equally regardless of the educational option their parents choose,” the foundation argues.
It adds that the program is “heavy on the regulations it places on participating schools. Private schools must base their admissions on lottery, administer national norm-referenced tests, permit one site visit per year, and submit testing achievement reports.” Scholarships are currently up to $12,205 per school year for attendance in grades 9‐12 and $8,136 for attendance in grades K‐8 for tuition and school‐related fees (e.g. books, uniforms, public transportation, etc.). In most cases this covers tuition at archdiocesan schools.
The program is not without its critics and detractors. Even the U.S. Department of Education, which conducted a congressionally-mandated evaluation of the program in June 2010, was nonplussed by the program’s achievements. “There is no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement,” said the study, conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences. “On average, after at least four years students who were offered (or used) scholarships had reading and math test scores that were statistically similar to those who were not offered scholarships. … Although some other subgroups of students appeared to have higher levels of reading achievement if they were offered or used a scholarship, those findings could be due to chance.”
The study did find that the program “significantly improved students’ chances of graduating from high school,” however. “The offer of a scholarship improved the graduation prospects by 13 percentage points for the high priority group of students from schools designated SINI (Schools In Need of Improvement) in 2003-05 (79% graduation rate for the treatment group versus 66 percent for the control group).”
But voucher recipients had a graduation rate of 91%, Reed points out. “Graduation rate for D.C. students who applied for vouchers but did not receive them in a random lottery: 70%. Graduation rate in D.C. public schools: 56%.” In addition, for the school years beginning 2009 and 2010, 94% of 12th grade students in the program graduated from high school; 89% went on to enroll at a 2- or 4-year college or university.
Now, Obama is pushing for universal pre-school. In his State of the Union address, he warned of the dire consequences youngsters face if they don’t start their education as early as possible. The question is, though, will he allow parents to educate their “pre-schoolers” as they see fit?