When a school closes, such as Naugatuck’s St. Francis-St. Hedwig, it is a source of sadness to the Catholic community and of distress to parents.
No one wants to close a school, especially one that is academically successful. While our Catholic school students excel on several national standardized exams, the state will not allow them to sit for state-administered tests that would showcase their achievement. Our 100 percent high school graduation rate and post-secondary education placements remain as strong indicators of our performance across all economic and social strata. If a child enrolls in our schools, he or she will most likely attend college.
While public schools of choice are funded by taxpayers, Catholic schools are funded by private donations and privately paid tuition. In effect, by reducing the number of students in public schools, our families and parishes have underwritten public education for decades. Yet, despite $12,000,000 in tuition aid from parishioners and the three (arch) dioceses in Connecticut last year, many working families cannot afford to enroll their children in our schools.
As legal scholar of religious liberty Carl Esbeck wrote, when the state offers educational services to its resident children, it should not exclude a child whose parent makes a religious choice over a secular one: “To take note of religion only in order to exclude it from modern civil society … runs counter to the Establishment Clause’s predisposition to enlarge religious freedom.”
For years, the Connecticut Catholic Conference has tried to impress upon the state legislature both the justice and the benefit of providing significant relief to Catholic school families. Catholic parents, like all residents, contribute to state and local revenue. To help them, the conference has proposed an expanded inter-district transportation system and corporate tax-credits to K-12 scholarship foundations. And yet, unlike other states that provide some sort of assistance to private school families, these proposals have been virtually dead on arrival at the Connecticut legislature. On a very limited basis, some legislation has advanced.
The Education Committee raised House Bill 5340, An Act Concerning Education Savings Accounts. This bill calls for a study of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and their potential effect in Connecticut. ESAs grant parents access to all or a portion of the money allocated toward their child’s government school education, to use on educational alternatives such as homeschooling textbooks, tutoring, learning therapies or private school tuition. The passage of HB 5340 would hopefully lead to ESAs, which would enable our superintendents to expand special needs services that have been cost prohibitive at some of our schools. This expansion of services would make Catholic education greatly accessible to an even more diverse student population — a population that already ethnically and racially mirrors the Connecticut census.
When the announcement initially was made about the closing of St. Francis-St. Hedwig School, local legislators expressed concern. One can only hope that they and their colleagues will come to see the justice and benefit of helping Catholic school families and that they will support HB 5340. Without action, unfortunately, St. Francis-St. Hedwig will not be the last Catholic school to close in Connecticut.
The passage of HB 5340 would be a strong first step to sustain Catholic education for the future.
Michael C. Culhane is the executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference.