School choice initiatives gain momentum

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — School choice initiatives are no longer at
the back of the class raising their hand and never getting called on. Today,
they are taking a front seat in education circles, state assemblies and even Washington

tax credits and education savings accounts — earning more state approval in
recent years and optimistically looking for more gains this year — also have
some extra wind in their sails with President Donald J. Trump’s campaign pledge to
provide a $20 billion voucher program and his pick of a school voucher advocate
as his nominee for education secretary.

27 states and the District of Columbia have some type of school choice measure
in place and a number of states have legislation on the table for this year.

only federally funded voucher program is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship
Program, which provides scholarships to low-income children in Washington for
tuition at participating private schools. This program is awaiting
reauthorization from Congress this year.

Scott, the director of the D.C. Catholic Conference, said the District of Columbia scholarship program may have a more secure future under the Trump
administration and also could “trail-blaze the way for other federally
funded school choice programs in the nation.”

He said
the program has faced “numerous political challenges” threatening to
undermine it during the past 13 years. In December, Congress approved
stop-gap legislation to fund the federal government through April.

This spring, the new Congress will have
to approve another spending bill to keep federal agencies running through the
end of the 2017 fiscal year, which ends in September.

the country at the state level, Catholic conferences are involved in lobbying
efforts to promote school choice as a way to provide more families access to
Catholic schools.

Dale McDonald, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the public
policy and research director for the National Catholic Educational Association,
said the NCEA sees school choice as a justice issue.

aren’t meant to serve only the rich. As a church, we’re committed to serving all
God’s people,” she told Catholic News Service Jan. 26.

said school choice initiatives primarily make Catholic schools accessible to
low-income families, but there has been a concerted effort in recent years to
find ways to help middle-class families similarly be able to afford a Catholic school
education for their children.

Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, said the middle class
would benefit from school choice legislation before Iowa lawmakers this year.

The state’s
lawmakers will consider education savings accounts that would allow parents who
choose not to enroll their children in a public school to receive a deposit of
public funds of about $5,500 to $6,000 in a savings account set up by the state that can be used for Catholic school tuition and fees.

said the state already has had a tax credit scholarship plan in place for about
10 years that lets individuals and corporations allocate a portion of their state
taxes to private nonprofit scholarship organizations that give public and
private school scholarships.

thinks the parental school choice momentum is building in the state mainly from
grass-roots efforts and he hopes the lawmakers will not see this solely as a partisan

Andrew Vandiver, associate director
of the Kentucky Catholic Conference, said his state is one of the few without
any type of school choice legislation, but he is optimistic that a scholarship
tax credit program coming before the state’s general assembly in February will

He said
interest in the initiative has been growing and a lot of grass-roots’ support
is behind it. Enrollment in Catholic schools in the state includes a large number of non-Catholic
students, which he said is part of the schools’ mission. “We don’t want
this to be a luxury for the wealthy. We want it to be open for all

said the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary certainly raises the
voucher issue in people’s minds. “They feel more hopeful,” he added.

Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions grilled DeVos at her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing for her support of
vouchers. She is former chairman of the American Federation for Children, a school
choice advocacy group, serving from 2009 to 2016.

told the senators: “Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model
of learning fits the needs of every child.”

Senate committee was scheduled to vote on DeVos’ nomination Jan. 31.

During Trump’s first week in office there was no discussion, or listing on
the White House website, about his education plans.

McDonald said if the president does follow up on his promise for a $20 billion
voucher plan, which she said will likely be in the form of state grants, it
would be something the NCEA and Catholic conferences would want to look at
carefully. If any of the proposals would force schools to violate Catholic
teaching, they wouldn’t take the money, she noted.

– – –

to this story was Richard Szczepanowski from the Catholic Standard, newspaper
of the Archdiocese of Washington.

– – –

Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

– – –

Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article