By Simon Baker
The Catholic hierarchy in Pennsylvania experienced a teachable moment recently when one of its officials demanded that needy parents lobby lawmakers for a school voucher bill or lose tuition assistance their children are receiving to attend parochial school.
On Oct. 20, Dr. Ronald T. Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, sent a letter to the principals of local Catholic schools.
“We must be relentless in our efforts to help pass school choice this year,” he wrote. “I am asking you to inform all 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 nextyear.”
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The attached form asked parents to list the name of the legislator they contacted, how many times he or she was contacted and in what form (email, etc.) he or she was contacted. It also asked parents to list the lawmaker’s position on the bill.
But a few weeks later, on Nov. 16, the Pittsburgh Diocese issued a “corrective” emailasserting that Bowes had “misstated long-standing diocesan policy relative to the distribution of financial aid to parents," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The email also said 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,” according to the Post-Gazette.
The Rev. Kris Stubna, secretary for Catholic education at the Pittsburgh Diocese, tried to brush aside Bowes’ actions as the product of excessive enthusiasm.
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"What you're reading in [Mr. Bowes' email] is a real desire to get parents motivated," Stubna told the newspaper. "This is the first time in a long time that the legislature has a real possibility of passing school choice, and legislators have told us in the past that they don't hear as much as they would like from parents who support it."
The Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill in October that offers vouchers to families at or near the federal poverty level if their kids attend public schools that are in the bottom 5 percent in terms of standardized test performance. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives has yet to act on the bill, and it is unclear if that body will do anything with it in 2011.
What is clear, though, is that Bowes’ tactic was heavy handed and deplorable. It’s very good that church leaders backed off, but what were they thinking in the first place?
Pennsylvania and other states are facing a hardball campaign to fund religious and other private schools with taxpayer dollars. Bowes’ email wasn’t just a product of mere exuberance – the hierarchy really, really wants this voucher subsidy bill to pass.
There’s no telling what tactics those in favor of voucher subsidies may try next, so if you’re concerned about this issue and want more information, visit the Keystone State Education Coalition’s website.