Political leaders have come out in support of School Choice Week, as the Supreme Court considers a crucial case on the right of parents to public assistance if they choose religious schools.
National School Choice Week is Jan. 26 through Feb. 1. “School choice” is a policy to provide families, particularly low-income families, the option of using public funds such as tax credits, public scholarships or vouchers, to help pay for the cost of sending their children to private schools or charter schools.
The U.S. bishops’ conference has promoted school choice over the years, in line with Church teaching that parents are the primary educators of their children.
The chair of the U.S. bishops’ education committee, Bishop Michael Barber, S.J. of Oakland, outlined the conference’s stances on school choice in a March, 2019 letter to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), Education Freedom Scholarships.
“In addition to parents having the duty to educate their children, the Catholic Church also teaches that parents should have access to government resources to successfully meet the education needs of their children,” Bishop Barber wrote.
Byrne quoted Pope St. Paul VI’s declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum Educationis: “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.”
Barber also praised Congress in December for reauthorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which allows for education vouchers.
“The Catholic Church has consistently taught that children have the universal right to an education, and that parents have the right and responsibility to serve as the primary educators of their children,” Barber stated, “The Church also teaches that the state has a fundamental obligation to support parents in fulfilling such a right.”
President Trump, in a proclamation for School Choice Week issued last Friday, said that “[e]ach child is a gift from God who has boundless potential and deserves a fair shot at the American Dream.” The president said that “children and their families must be free to pursue an educational environment that matches their individual learning style, develops their unique talents, and prepares them with the knowledge and character needed for fulfilling and productive lives.”
The USCCB has also weighed in on a recent school choice case, Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, currently before the Supreme Court.
A clause in Montana’s state constitution that dates back to 1889, and which was included again in the state’s 1972 constitution, bars public funding of religious schools.
A state scholarship program funded by donations—through which donors could claim tax credits dollar-for-dollar—was created to help low-income parents to send their children to private schools, including religious schools. The state supreme court ruled that the program violated the state constitution and struck it down, saying that it could not be remedied.
Bishop Barber, along with USCCB religious freedom chair Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, stated that “Our country’s tradition of non-establishment of religion does not mean that governments can deny otherwise available benefits on the basis of religious status.”
Legislators have also drawn attention to School Choice Week. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) sponsored the Senate resolution designating the week of Jan. 26 through Feb. 1, 2020 as School Choice Week. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Education Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) were original cosponsors of the resolution.
“I firmly believe that a child’s zip code should not affect his or her access to quality education nor should it affect the child’s future, which is why I proudly support National School Choice Week,” Sen. Scott stated.
“I have long believed that parents should have an informed and meaningful choice in their children’s education,” said Senator Feinstein.
Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla,) office tweeted on Monday that he “proudly supports the right of every parent to decide what educational option is best for their child, regardless of zip code or socioeconomic background.”
“Parents should be the ultimate decision makers on where their children go to school,” Sen. Cruz tweeted, adding that “poor and working class parents often have no choice about what schools their children can attend.”
The Joint Economic Committee in the Senate, which runs the Social Capital Project, stated Monday that “Public education aspired to be the common ground on which sectarianism could be put aside to focus on values we all share.”
“This model is breaking down,” the committee said, “evidenced by parents frustrated at their inability to influence the content or context of their child’s educational experience.”