The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has offered its support for a new school funding bill, as Catholic schools grapple with the effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The School Choice Now Act would provide one-time funding to scholarship-granting organizations, who would be authorized to allocate those funds to parents. The funds could be spent on private school tuition or expenses associated with homeschooling. Parents would be able to pick whatever educational institution they think is best for their child.
Catholic schools have endured a “triple whammy” this spring, Jennifer Daniels, the associate director for public policy in the USCCB’s secretariat for Catholic education, told CNA on Tuesday.
This “triple whammy” of families losing jobs, the suspension of Masses and their Sunday collections to offset tuition costs, and the cancellation of spring fundraisers.
“All of those things had a severe impact on a school’s bottom line budget,” Daniels explained.
“We’ve seen thus far that 138 Catholic schools announced permanent closure already. And through some internal surveys we did, we found approximately 10% of schools were still uncertain about their ability to open in the fall.”
If that number remained true across Catholic schools, said Daniels, 500 Catholic schools are at risk of not reopening.
In an email campaign, the USCCB requested that Catholics contact their senators to encourage them to support the bill.
“Please join the USCCB in asking the U.S. Senate to include additional relief for Catholic schools in the emergency relief package currently being negotiated,” says the campaign.
“As the Senate prepares its next aid bill, we ask that the next COVID relief package include immediate assistance to families through federally-funded scholarships.”
The bill is sponsored by Sens. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) and Lamar Alexander (R-South Carolina). The bill would also provide federal tax credits for those who contribute to scholarship-granting organizations, as well as permit states to “create their own tax credit scholarship program that works for the unique needs of students in their state.”
"All parents, regardless of income or circumstance, should be able to decide which school best meets their child’s needs, whether that school is public or private," Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee said in a statement published July 22.
"The School Choice Now Act provides scholarships to students to have the opportunity to return to the private school they attended before the pandemic—and gives other students a new opportunity to attend private school,” he added.
Daniels told CNA that she was in favor of the payments to families, rather than direct support to schools, as schools primarily rely on enrollment figures.
“We want to give families certainty to re-enroll their children in our schools, and give families the resources they need to make the best decisions for their children,” she said.
In some states, public schools are either not opening for in-person classes, or are adopting a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction, while private schools are planning on operating as normal. This is prompting some parents to consider switching to private schools or homeschool.
The Diocese of Manchester, which will be having in-person classes in the fall, is even offering a partial scholarship to anyone who transfers to a diocesan school from a non-Catholic school.
Congress needs to move fast on this, said Daniels, as the start of the school year is only a few days away in parts of the country.
“The bishops themselves have been highly engaged. The staff with the USCCB has been highly engaged in trying to get federal help for our Catholic schools for months,” she said.
“We really need Congress to act as quickly and swiftly as possible, in order to get that aid out as quickly as possible to our families.”