Northeast Times

A push for vouchers

Ju­ni­or cit­izens take to the streets to fight for their right to school choice

St. Wil­li­am Gram­mar School will close in June after 88 years of Cath­ol­ic edu­ca­tion, and eighth-grader Tracy Glova cites a lack of gov­ern­ment vouch­ers as one reas­on why.

“It’s not fair that Cath­ol­ic schools don’t get money,” she said. “Part of the reas­on that schools are clos­ing down is that there isn’t enough fin­an­cial aid. It would help a lot. Every kid should be able to have a Cath­ol­ic edu­ca­tion and get closer to God.”

Last Fri­day, Glova and about 150 oth­er fifth- through eighth-graders joined the par­ish pas­tor, prin­cip­al, vice prin­cip­al and teach­ers in a demon­stra­tion out­side the of­fice of state Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-170th dist.).

The Sen­ate passed a bill last Oc­to­ber that would cre­ate a school vouch­er pro­gram in the state. The vote was 27-22. Loc­al Demo­crat­ic Sens. Tina Tartagli­one, Shir­ley Kit­chen and Mike Stack voted against the meas­ure.

There is not enough sup­port to pass the bill in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, and a vote has not been taken.

On Jan. 6, in the Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia blue rib­bon com­mis­sion re­port an­noun­cing school clos­ings, it was er­ro­neously re­por­ted that the vouch­ers bill “failed by only 10 votes in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives.” The re­port re­com­men­ded that St. Wil­li­am close, with stu­dents mov­ing on to St. Cecil­ia in Fox Chase.

Sis­ter Jane Mc­Fad­den, the vice prin­cip­al, wrote a let­ter to the ed­it­or that was pub­lished in the Times on Feb. 1, cri­ti­ciz­ing Rep. Kev­in Boyle (D-172nd dist.) — Brendan’s young­er broth­er — for at­tend­ing a rally at St. Cecil­ia to pre­serve that school’s name after the mer­ger, but not sup­port­ing the vouch­er bill.

Two days later, the stu­dents at­ten­ded a Cath­ol­ic Schools Week Mass, had their throats blessed on the feast of St. Blaise, then marched 10 blocks to Brendan Boyle’s of­fice at 7215B Rising Sun Ave.

The con­tin­gent was led by Sis­ter Jane, prin­cip­al Sis­ter Cath­er­ine Clarke and the Rev. Joseph Wat­son, the pas­tor.

The stu­dents and adults took turns shout­ing in­to a mega­phone. The chants in­cluded, “Law­makers, vote school choice,” “Save our school” and “Here we go vouch­ers, here we go.”

They held signs with say­ings such as, “Don’t be a fool. Save our school.”

Many vehicles honked in sup­port dur­ing the hour-long rally. The crowd spilled onto the store­fronts of Boyle’s two next-door neigh­bors — a Baptist church and a Nar­cot­ics An­onym­ous of­fice.

The demon­strat­ors, many of whom traveled to Har­ris­burg a few months ago for a pro-vouch­ers rally, braved the cold weath­er on the shady side of the street be­fore mov­ing onto the sunny side. The pas­tor, prin­cip­al, vice prin­cip­al and pa­rish­ion­er Paul Corbett walked in­to Boyle’s of­fice to lobby for vouch­ers.

“We’re here to ask him to please vote for it,” Sis­ter Jane said.

Boyle was not in the of­fice. He was at his oth­er of­fice in Somer­ton, meet­ing with of­fi­cials from a Roxbor­ough charter school and keep­ing oth­er pre­vi­ously sched­uled ap­point­ments.

Staffers at the Rising Sun Av­en­ue of­fice called chief of staff Dan Lod­ise to tell him about the demon­stra­tion, adding that the stu­dents were stand­ing on the heav­ily traveled street (true), did not have signed par­ent­al per­mis­sion slips (not true) and were banging on win­dows (not wit­nessed by a Times re­port­er and pho­to­graph­er).

Lod­ise ar­rived on the scene, and so did Jason Budd, the arch­diocese’s deputy sec­ret­ary for Cath­ol­ic edu­ca­tion.

Boyle said he was “sur­prised and dis­ap­poin­ted” by the demon­stra­tion. The arch­diocese was un­aware of the planned gath­er­ing.

Sis­ter Cath­er­ine said many fam­il­ies want to send their chil­dren to St. Wil­li­am, loc­ated in Lawndale.

“As soon as they hear the tu­ition, they say, ‘I can’t af­ford it,’ ” she said.

St. Wil­li­am was once a bust­ling school, but en­roll­ment is now down be­low 300. The drop can be at­trib­uted to factors such as a chan­ging neigh­bor­hood, high tu­ition and charter schools.

Sis­ter Jane be­lieves vouch­ers would have en­abled the 100 par­ish kids in its CCD pro­gram to af­ford St. Wil­li­am. She noted that it is too late to save St. Wil­li­am, but she hopes non-pub­lic schools ul­ti­mately re­ceive state as­sist­ance.

“This vouch­er would be a great help to us,” she said.

Corbett said Phil­adelphia Cath­ol­ic schools are a bet­ter al­tern­at­ive than pub­lic schools, based on stand­ard­ized test scores.

“We’ve got to take care of the poor. It’s a Chris­ti­an ob­lig­a­tion and a pub­lic ob­lig­a­tion,” he said.

The bill passed by the Sen­ate would have ex­ten­ded tu­ition vouch­ers to low-in­come fam­il­ies with chil­dren in the bot­tom 5 per­cent of poor-per­form­ing pub­lic schools. The an­nu­al house­hold in­come would be $29,000.

Among the loc­al schools that fit in­to that cat­egory are Ben­jamin Frank­lin, Creighton and Laura H. Car­nel­lele­ment­ary schools, all with­in a short dis­tance of St. Wil­li­am.

In the second year, vouch­ers would be offered to low-in­come stu­dents already at­tend­ing private schools.

Also, it would in­crease the an­nu­al cap on the Edu­ca­tion­al Im­prove­ment Tax Cred­it from $75 mil­lion to $100 mil­lion. The cap would rise to $125 mil­lion in three years. The EITC gives tax breaks to busi­nesses that make con­tri­bu­tions to schol­ar­ship or­gan­iz­a­tions.

The Pennsylvania State Edu­ca­tion As­so­ci­ation, the state’s largest school em­ploy­ee uni­on, op­poses the bill, even the pro­vi­sion in­creas­ing fund­ing for the pop­u­lar EITC.

Brendan Boyle’s dis­trict rep­res­ents a small por­tion of Lawndale and will likely have none of it when a re­dis­trict­ing bill fi­nally be­comes law. Kev­in Boyle’s dis­trict doesn’t rep­res­ent any of Lawndale.

Brendan Boyle at­ten­ded St. Helena’s, Car­din­al Dougherty and Notre Dame, and said he nev­er got in trouble with the nuns.

The two-term law­maker sup­ports the EITC fund­ing in­creases. Asked wheth­er he would have voted in fa­vor of the vouch­er bill that passed the Sen­ate, he ex­plained that he would have tried to amend it to in­clude middle-class fam­il­ies.

“There aren’t many fam­il­ies in my dis­trict or the North­east who would ac­tu­ally be­ne­fit from Sen­ate Bill 1,” he said.

Boyle said he and col­leagues will con­tin­ue to look to the EITC and oth­er ini­ti­at­ives to strengthen loc­al non-pub­lic schools.

“The en­tire North­east Philly del­eg­a­tion has been pretty sup­port­ive of our Cath­ol­ic schools,” he said.

••

On a re­lated note, St. Wil­li­am par­ents are plan­ning a rally tent­at­ively sched­uled for Sat­urday at 5 p.m. in the school park­ing lot.

The par­ish has not ap­pealed its clos­ing and agreed to send the stu­dents to St. Cecil­ia. A com­mit­tee would choose a new school name and uni­form col­ors, and every cur­rent em­ploy­ee of both schools would have to ap­ply for a job at the com­bined school.

St. Cecil­ia has ap­pealed the de­cision, and par­ents and stu­dents staged their own rally at the school. Their main con­cern is that they don’t want to give up their school name, since St. Cecil­ia has more than double the en­roll­ment of St. Wil­li­am.

Mean­while, St. Mat­thew has ap­pealed the re­com­mend­a­tion to part­ner with Our Lady of Con­sol­a­tion. St. Mat­thew has more than four times the en­roll­ment of Our Lady of Con­sol­a­tion.

In a Feb. 1 let­ter to par­ents and guard­i­ans, prin­cip­al Sis­ter Kath­leen Touey re­por­ted on a meet­ing that took place the night be­fore at Fath­er Judge.

Ac­cord­ing to the let­ter, the Rev. Den­nis Car­bon­aro, the Our Lady of Con­sol­a­tion pas­tor, and prin­cip­al Steph­en Di­Cicco sup­port re­tain­ing the St. Mat­thew school name. ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­ing@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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