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NCEA leader says school choice support can help Catholic parents

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IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy NCEA

By Valerie Schmalz

SAN FRANCISCO (CNS) — The Trump administration’s apparent endorsement of parental school choice could present a “huge opportunity” for Catholic school parents, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association told a group of Catholic high school teachers in San Francisco.

“This could be a huge opportunity for parents wanting to choose the right school for their children,” Thomas Burnford, NCEA president, told participants at the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s annual high school teachers’ consortium Feb. 3.

“Whatever your politics, the current administration proclaims some understanding or belief in support of school choice,” Burnford said in his talk at Archbishop Riordan High School. In his remarks, he did not mention President Donald Trump directly, saying in later comments he did not want to politicize the subject of parental choice.

His speech was given four days before Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate as the nation’s education secretary following a tiebreaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence in his capacity as president of the Senate. DeVos, former chairman of the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group, has long been an advocate of school choice. She told the senators during her confirmation hearing: “Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning fits the needs of every child.”

When he was running for president, Trump endorsed parental choice both in an October letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference and on his campaign website where he promised to “establish the national goal of providing school choice to every one of the 11 million school-age children living in poverty.”

Currently, at least 27 states have some form of parental school choice and although the programs affect a relatively small percentage of children, Burnford said that in areas with school choice programs, Catholic school enrollment tends to be stable or on the rise.

The U.S. bishops advocate tax credit and voucher programs that allow public education funding to follow the child to private, parochial or public schools and have made it one of their priorities for the current 115th Congress.

“The church has been very clear” that it is “parents who have the primary and inalienable right to educate their children,” Burnford said, but to do so, they “must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools,” which he said does not happen in most of the country.

He said that choice is only real when the funding is made available for everybody and follows the student to the school of their choice, which he said occurs in other countries.

Burnford noted that tuition remains an obstacle for many parents to enroll their children in Catholic schools.

Since 2006, 20 percent of Catholic schools have closed, and while there are bright spots, and innovations that are working such as the Cristo Rey work study high schools, the situation is serious, Burnford said, noting that there has been a 27 percent decline in Catholic school enrollment since 2000. About 1.9 million of the 55 million school-age children in the U.S. attend Catholic schools.

About 60 percent of school-age Catholic children are Latino, while just 3 percent are in Catholic schools, Burnford said. That is “clearly a funding issue,” he said.

The NCEA president said the track record of Catholic schools in educating children of every background is outstanding, pointing out that 99 percent of Catholic high school students graduate and 86 percent attend four-year colleges. “A child who is black or Latino is 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and two and a half times more likely to graduate from college if they attend Catholic school,” he said.

Burnford stressed that Catholic schools “need a growth mindset in this day and age.”

“It is a matter of faith and knowing that God will deliver,” he said.

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Schmalz is assistant editor of Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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