A genuine and independent choice for Catholic education

There are 1.2 million empty seats in Catholic schools across the country and we’ve been in dialogue with Catholic educators in Florida and nationally about how to fill them. Our colleagues at the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), headquartered at the University of Notre Dame, are helping lead this effort and have identified tax credit scholarships as part of the solution.

In Florida and several other states tax credit scholarships have become a growing source of income for Catholic schools. In the 2009-10 school year, Florida Catholic schools received $12,647,900 in tax credit scholarship funds, or approximately 11 percent of all the Florida tax credit scholarship money distributed that year.

But while tax credit scholarships are a big help, whether to convert existing Catholic schools to charter schools is dominating the discussion. A handful of Catholic schools have converted to charters in the last two years and these conversions have generated intense debate within the church and throughout the school choice movement. Many Catholic educators think converting a Catholic school to a charter strips all traces of Catholic education and identity from that school, while others argue Catholic education is about a set of core values and attitudes that can be modeled and taught in a charter school even if the crucifix is taken off the wall.

I believe that under the conditions defined by the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a Catholic school may convert to a charter school and leave the crucifix up provided the parental choice is “genuine and independent.” The court ruled that the Cleveland voucher program was a program of “true private choice.” It didn’t matter to the majority of justices that 96 percent of students participating in the program attended faith-based schools. Then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist noted that the figure didn’t take into account the thousands of children who left their neighborhood schools under the Cleveland plan and exercised their choice to attend magnet or charter schools.

In that sense, the public policy that drove those choices was “neutral in all aspects toward religion,” according to the court’s own language.

It’s time to test that language. I hope that a Catholic school will soon apply to become a Catholic charter school, get turned down, and sue in federal court claiming this rejection is a violation of the Zelman decision. If the Supreme Court logically extended its precedent to Catholic charter schools, then the future of U.S. Catholic education would be secure.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.