March 8, 2011 // Uncategorized

School Choice: A matter of justice

There has been much debate the past few months concerning proposed legislation in our state that creates a new Choice Scholarship program that allows families to choose a non-public school, commonly called “school voucher program.” This legislation also improves the state’s Scholarship Tax Credit program.

I have followed this debate in our local newspapers. Much of the commentary appearing in the secular press opposes this legislation. The Church, through the Indiana Catholic Conference, is strongly supportive of the legislation (House Bill 1003).

Much of the public debate seems to me to ignore the fundamental issue of justice in this legislation. This debate should not be about public vs. non-public schools. It should not seek to disparage one or the other. We need to focus on the fundamental moral principles that underlie this legislation. In this column, I wish to expound the important teaching of the Church concerning education and the rights of parents.

The Church teaches that the right and the duty of parents to educate their children is essential, primary, irreplaceable and inalienable. The State cannot annul this right and has the duty to respect and promote it. The Holy See’s Charter of the Rights of the Family states that public authorities must see to it that “public subsidies are so allocated that parents are truly free to exercise this right without incurring unjust burdens. Parents should not have to sustain, directly or indirectly, extra charges which would deny or unjustly limit the exercise of this freedom.” In our state today, parents are not truly free to exercise this right since, if they choose to send their children to non-public schools, they must pay the “extra charge” of tuition in addition to the taxes they already pay for the support of public schools.

We read the following in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: “The refusal to provide public economic support to non-public schools that need assistance and that render a service to civil society is to be considered an injustice.” Interestingly, the proposed legislation here in Indiana is not even designed to provide public economic support to non-public schools. Instead, it is designed to provide public economic support to parents who then can choose the schools to which they wish to send their children. Neither does the proposed legislation provide this support to all parents. Eligibility is limited to those whose family income is less than a certain amount. Though the proposed legislation is a step in the right direction, it does not provide parental choice for all.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has stated that “whenever the State lays claim to an educational monopoly, it oversteps its rights and offends justice… The State cannot without injustice merely tolerate so-called private schools. Such schools render a public service and therefore have a right to financial assistance.” Again, the proposed legislation here in Indiana does not provide direct assistance to non-public schools, but to the parents. In truth, the system in our nation promotes a State educational monopoly. Though we are free to establish and run Catholic schools, schools which provide a great public service, the financial burden is sometimes so heavy that our schools are not affordable for many parents no matter how hard we try to help them with tuition assistance.

Six years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement, “Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium.” We addressed the critical financial questions that continue to face our Catholic schools. We called for just and equitable treatment of our students and teachers in federal and state-funded educational programs. We reiterated the Church’s perennial teaching that “as the primary educators of their children, parents have the right to choose the school best suited for them.” We encouraged the entire Catholic community “to advocate for parental school choice and personal and corporate tax credits, which will help parents to fulfill their responsibility in educating their children.” That is precisely what Indiana House Bill 1003 does, at least to a certain extent.

It seems to me that those who are opposing House Bill 1003 fail to appreciate that parents have a fundamental right to choose a school for their children. Though they will likely affirm that right, in truth such a right is not upheld when parents cannot exercise it due to the unjust financial burden.

If anyone has any doubt about the Church’s authentic teaching in this area, I refer them to the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Christian Education” (“Gravissimum educationis”). In that important Declaration, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council declared that “the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.”

There is one area of criticism of non-public schools that I have read in our local newspapers that is particularly unjust. In opposition to the proposed voucher system, some argue on the basis that we often do not accept students with special educational needs. They criticize us for this. This criticism is patently disingenuous since we desperately want to accept more students with special educational needs. The problem is that, because of the lack of public subsidies, we often do not have the financial resources to provide for these needs. That is the injustice!! I am glad that another bill has been proposed (House Bill 1341) that would require that state funds allocated for special needs students enrolled in non-public schools be spent on their behalf. Current Indiana law does not require that state money allocated for special education students in Indiana be used for students in non-public schools, even though the allocation the public school district receives counts these students. This is clearly a matter of justice — public resources allocated for special needs students should go to serve these students in whichever school they attend.
I invite all to join our Indiana Catholic Conference in advocating for justice in this important area of school choice.

This issue is not new. In the 19th century, when many Catholic schools were established in our diocese and throughout our nation, the Catholic community fought and worked hard for Catholic schools. This was in the context of much anti-Catholic bigotry, manifest in efforts such as the so-called “Blaine” amendments, which were adopted in some states to ban or severely limit assistance to private and/or religious schools. Following our ancestors in the faith, we make great sacrifices for our Catholic schools. And like them, we advocate for justice for parents to have the right to choose the schools best suited for their children without financial penalty.

Get Connected:
In addition to the I-CAN Update, one can obtain more detailed information regarding the bills and detailed information about the legislative process through the ICC Legislative Action Center. Under policy tools click on issues and legislation and access the state or federal bills by clicking current legislation.” Also, you can access the archived updates, ICC positions and other background information at the ICC Web site,

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