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Senator James Meeks (D-Chicago) succeeded in getting his bill passed in the State Senate to pilot vouchers in Chicago for students in failing public schools.  As I have mentioned in an earlier post, this would not only be an important step towards educational justice for tens of thousands of children consigned to failing Chicago schools, but it would also make the largest Archdiocesan Catholic school system more accessible to needy families.

The bill passed with a vote of 33-20, pretty incredible in a Democratically controlled Senate.  But major challenges lie ahead as the vote moves to the House and has received a chilly response from Democratic Governor, Pat Quinn.

“This voucher legislation targets those most in need, and we know our Catholic schools can help,” said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which supported Meeks’ legislation.

This contention, that Catholic schools can help, is certainly supported by the data, which suggests that low-income minority students that attend a Catholic school are 42% more likely to graduate from high school and two-and-a-half times more likely to graduate from college than their public school peers.

We’ll be watching this one closely!

In a powerful op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, iconic President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame and a leader in the civil rights movement, reflects upon education as the civil rights issue of our time.  Emphasizing the role of education in providing young people with equality of opportunity, he condemns the actions of congress in removing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Here are some selections:

If Martin Luther King Jr. told me once, he told me a hundred times that the key to solving our country’s race problem is plain as day: Find decent schools for our kids… Millions of our children—disproportionately poor and minority—remain trapped in failing public schools that condemn them to lives on the fringe of the American Dream.

For all these reasons, I was deeply disappointed when Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) successfully inserted a provision in last year’s omnibus spending bill that ended one of the best efforts to give these struggling children the chance to attend a safe and decent school.

Despite its successes, it is now closing down. On Tuesday the Senate voted against a measure introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) that would have extended the program. Throughout this process Mr. Duncan’s Education Department and the White House raised no protest.

Much has been written about the crisis in education, and the effective resegregation of our public schools. It’s clear who is paying the price.

Many of the parents using Opportunity Scholarships chose Catholic schools for their children even though they are not Catholic themselves. That’s no coincidence. When others abandoned the cities, the Catholic schools remained, and they continue to do heroic work.

At Notre Dame we launched our own efforts to bolster this mission. Our Alliance for Catholic Education, for example, takes talented young men and women, trains them to see teaching as a career, and then sends them into struggling inner-city schools such as Holy Redeemer in Washington, D.C.

But these inner-city schools can’t do it themselves. Recently the archdiocese of Washington announced that Holy Redeemer would be forced to close its doors at the end of the year because the families who send their children to the school are unable to afford it without the financial aid they receive from this program. The archdiocese stated that “decisions last year by the U.S. Department of Education and by Congress to phase out the federal D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program . . . negatively impacted Holy Redeemer’s financial situation.”

Of Holy Redeemer’s 149 students, 60 were on Opportunity Scholarships. Unlike so many of their peers, these kids were on their way to college. Now they have to find some other safe haven. Others will never get the chance at all.

I know that some consider voucher programs such as the Opportunity Scholarships a right-wing affair. I do not accept that label. This program was passed with the bipartisan support of a Republican president and Democratic mayor. The children it serves are neither Republican nor Democrat, liberal or conservative. They are the future of our nation, and they deserve better from our nation’s leaders.

I have devoted my life to equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of skin color. I don’t pretend that this one program is the answer to all the injustices in our education system. But it is hard to see why a program that has proved successful shouldn’t have the support of our lawmakers. The end of Opportunity Scholarships represents more than the demise of a relatively small federal program. It will help write the end of more than a half-century of quality education at Catholic schools serving some of the most at-risk African-American children in the District.

I cannot believe that a Democratic administration will let this injustice stand.

Father Hesburgh is the former president of the University of Notre Dame.

Despite the hopes of opponents that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program would quietly be phased out, supporters for this small and successful voucher program are tenacious.  See here for an op-ed in today’s Washington Post.

The fight has now been going on for months and a recent proposed amendment by Senate. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) to the Federal Aviation Administration would have reauthorized the program for another five years, allow new children to enter the program, modestly increase scholarship amounts, and continue a rigorous federal evaluation.

The Senate heard debate on Sen. Lieberman’s amendment this afternoon, including compelling speeches from Sens. Lieberman (I-CT), Collins (R-ME), Feinstein (D-CA), Voinovich (R-OH), and Ensign (R-NV)in support of the OSP.

Unfortunately the Senate voted down the Lieberman Amendment: 42 – 55.

This is a tragedy for the students of D.C. and for many urban private schools serving low-income minority children, as I’ve discussed earlier.  This proves to opponents, yet again, that this program won’t go away quietly and that parents and education reform advocates will keep fighting.

My guess is that this issue will come up again and again until the program is reauthorized, likely bigger and better than the first time.  This may happen as soon as the mid-term elections, where it is likely that democrats will lose ground.

So, although this is a loss in the short term, I think it will prove that these programs don’t die easily and are likely to be resurrected quickly when the landscape changes.  And in the mean time, while the fight in D.C.continues, many other states are making progress.

The Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame will be offering a set of unique opportunities for Catholic school advocates and educators this summer.  ACE seeks to sustain and strengthen Catholic schools through leadership formation, research and professional services and is a leading organization in support of Catholic schools nationally.  For those interested in supporting Catholic schools and joining a powerful network of others committed to this mission, consider signing up for one of the programs below.

I will be attending the Advocates for Parental Choice Symposium this year and am very much looking forward to it.  I’d also recommend the Summer Forum on the Participation of Latino Families in Catholic Schools, which is a part of the Catholic School Advantage Campaign.

The following is an excerpt from the ACE Fellowship web-page, which helps coordinate these programs.

Summer Enrichment Opportunities

This summer, hundreds of Catholic school professionals, parents, and advocates will gather at Notre Dame to be enriched in their efforts to make a high quality Catholic education available to all who desire it, and we invite you to be among them. I hope you will join us on campus for one of these programs, and share these opportunities with your communities.

A great lead editorial in the Chicago Tribune last Tuesday makes a compelling case for supporting Senator Meeks’ bill to grant vouchers to students in failing Chicago public schools.

This picks up on the story I began covering a few weeks ago, emphasizing what a blessing this would be for Chicago’s Catholic schools, as well as tens of thousands of low-income children that would benefit from a quality education.

In the Heritage Foundation’s blog, the Foundry, Lindsey Burke writes:

While China rings in 2010 as the year of the tiger, American families and taxpayers might soon be able to refer to 2010 as the year school choice became the norm. Five states in particular are worth watching: Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Virginia and New Jersey.

Perhaps add Maryland to that list after recent activity following the announcement by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to close 13 Catholic schools in June.

Learn all about the great progress that has been made so far in the 2009-2010 School Choice Yearbook, by the Alliance for School Choice.

This past Wednesday, March 3, was the feast of St. Katharine Drexel.  Rocco Palmo offers a beautiful reflection on his blog.

It is worth recalling a great quote from Pope Benedict XVI’s speech to Catholic Educators:

Dear friends, the history of this nation includes many examples of the Church’s commitment in this regard. 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 Saint 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 Saint Katharine Drexel, devoted their lives to educating those whom others had neglected – in her case, African Americans and Native Americans.

I’m sorry to have missed posting something on her actual feast day, but was still getting my feet back under me after the birth of my beautiful baby girl, Ceclia, one week before.

The big news these days is the tragic announcement of 13 Catholic schools to be closed in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.  Though framed as an opportunity to recalibrate Catholic education in the Archdiocese and find a new beginning, both rallying parents and education commentators are recognizing it for the major loss that it is, especially for the poorest students.

Though speculation has begun over what will happen to the buildings, the Archbishop insists that they do not plan to sell them.  His comments below, however, make me wonder if the Archdiocese is considering charter school leasing, as in D.C.

We want to use all of our buildings as best we can for the community in which they now exist, and we will do our best to work with community leadership to make sure the Catholic Church continues to serve those communities, maybe in the area of Catholic charities.

We sympathize with those who are so attached to buildings, but we hope that they realize that our main task is to make sure that we educate — and educate well — and educate as many of our students who are looking for a good education as possible.

Interestingly, the timing of this announcement coincides with a report highlighting the tremendous economic, academic, and community benefits that Catholic schools provide in Baltimore, highlighting the broad impact of their closing.

Unlike the message of the formal announcement, I believe the opportunity lies not with a smaller more sustainable Catholic school system in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, nor the leasing of the buildings of closed Catholic schools to charter schools – as some will surely advocate.  Instead this crisis should be used to broaden support for the passage of new legislation to help private schools and low-income families through tax-credit scholarships, a point not lost on some.  An article in the American Spectator, Saving Catholic Schools, makes a similar argument appealing to moderate Democrats to support such legislation.  It appears that Maryland Democrats are listening, aware of how little Baltimore can afford this blow to high quality urban education.

An astutely timed rally of hundreds of student in Annapolis attempted to bolster support for a tax-credit scholarship bill, BOAST, that would sponsor a program similar to a popular effort in Pennsylvania.  This program would significantly help urban Catholic and private schools, as well as low-income families that desire an alternative to often sub-par urban public schools.

Sen. Ron Dyson, D-St. Mary’s County voiced his support:

I want to work very hard to make sure our non-public schools continue to exist in our state.

Delegate Jay Walker, D-Prince George’s County did as well:

We must make sure we have equal education for all. We cannot afford to have the private schools go out of business because statistics show that they would quite simply overwhelm our public schools.

Andy Smarick at the Fordham Foundation also writes about a recent letter from Governor Martin O’Malley to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee expressing support for the BOAST bill.  In this letter, the Governor writes:

I believe the bill is crucial if we are to stem the tide of private school closures in the State.  These closures represent a loss of educational diversity and opportunity for our students and will ultimately increase costs and enrollment pressures on our public school systems.  The BOAST tax credit will help preserve Maryland’s rich tradition of highly performing public and private schools.

The crisis of urban Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore just might be the shock needed to push forward statewide legislation that will make Catholic and private education in Maryland more accessible and more sustainable for years to come.  Perhaps there might even be a way to save the 13 schools on the chopping block long enough for such a program to take effect.  Let’s hope all of these factors are considered by the Archdiocesan leadership as they continue discussions with parents and other groups desperate to save their Catholic schools.  “And hope does not disappoint us…” (Romans 5).