When Hartford Archbishop Henry Mansell, during a special Mass celebrating Catholic schools a week ago, urged parishioners to "engage in legislative educational issues," more than a few may have wondered exactly what he meant.
What Mansell was talking about — two initiatives to obtain state funding for Catholic schools — is part of a larger movement to have public programs include private schools among those parents can choose.
The Connecticut Federation of Catholic School Parents will be lobbying lawmakers during the coming legislative session.
"Catholic schools save the taxpayers over $400 million a year, which is obviously a significant amount of money," said John Cattelan, director of the federation. "And government, at all levels, has a role to play in making sure our children receive a proper education."
Although they advocate broader change, the federation is focusing this year on a tax credit for businesses that donate to private school scholarship programs and on an initiative that would allow municipalities to subsidize textbooks for private schools.
The federation has formed a coalition with the state's other religious and private schools to push its agenda during the legislative session. The Connecticut Association of Independent Schools, the Connecticut Association of Christian Schools and the Connecticut and Western New England Jewish Day School Forum are in the coalition.
The Connecticut Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church, will also be working with the federation.
They are seeking a tax credit worth up to $50,000 for any corporation or business that donates to scholarships for children attending private and religious schools. The total cost of the program would be $5 million.
The scholarships would be for families with incomes up to three times the income requirements for the school lunch program. A family of four, for example, would have to have an income of less than $78,000 a year to qualify.
Cattelan said studies have shown that if enough students transferred from public to private schools, the state's $5 million revenue loss would be offset.
But that argument might not carry weight with lawmakers, said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, the Democratic House chairman of the education committee.
"It's not clear that children opting out of the public schools actually save the state much money because for years now we've had school systems that have had a drop in their student census numbers and we have not reduced their educational funding in any way," Fleischmann said. "So while the argument sounds compelling on its face, I'm not sure it holds true here in Connecticut."
The other initiative pursued by the coalition of private schools would require school boards to buy and loan nonreligious textbooks on an equitable basis to all students. Although state law allows the lending of books by public school districts in Connecticut, there is no state funding for such a program.
Cattelan said 19 states provide some kind of financial support for textbook loans to private schools, including New York. The federation supports a program that would be similar to the one in New York, which requires parents of school children to complete an application with their local school board.
According to its website, the federation wants to see the state allocate $2.3 million, or an average of $60 per Catholic student, solely for the purchase of textbooks.
All of these proposals are likely to be controversial because they require lawmakers to allocate money for schools over which they have no oversight, Fleischmann said, and because it would allocate tax dollars to religious schools that only some parents would choose for their children.
"The only kind of state support you will find for private schools is transportation," Fleischmann said.
Catholic lobbyists say Catholic schools provide an important alternative to public schools, particularly for children from low-income areas. Catholic dioceses around the United States have had to close and consolidate schools because they can't afford to keep them open.
"The archbishop views this as a very important way to help Catholic schools and to get low-income kids to attend them," said David Reynolds, legislative liaison for the Connecticut Catholic Conference.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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