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September 19, 2005

Catholics are being asked to contribute to a special collection to help build up an endowment to provide financial aid to families of students in Catholic schools. Nearly 13,000 children, or 8.8% of the statewide elementary and high school enrollment, attended those schools during the 2004-05 academic year, according to Delaware Department of Education. Data for 2005-06 is not yet available.

A statement issued by the Diocese of Wilmington said that 467 families with a total of 808 children applied for financial aid for this year. Of those, 630 children qualified for help, but, because the endowment did not generate sufficient money, only 432 of the children are receiving aid and only between 50% and 75% of their families' calculated need will be provided.

The total being distributed is $520,000. It would take nearly three times that much to satisfy the need, the statement said. Moreover, it is obvious that more than 5% of the children attending Catholic schools are in families which could make a case for needing assistance, but, for whatever reasons, did not apply. 

Who gets aid and how much is determined by Private School Aid Service, a national company which the diocese has hired to provide an objective evaluation of applicants' financial need. The company said it has been in business since 1975 and has about 4,000 private, parochial and Christian schools for clients.

The needs assessment, it said, is based on an assumption that "if parents have chosen a non-public education for their children, they have the obligation to finance that education to the best of their ability." As with college financial aid, income and assets of the family are considered along with such things as its size, age of the parents, and the number of children attending tuition-charging schools.

Nowadays, competition among education providers is considered the key to improving the quality of education provided. But without the ability of 'customers' to choose among alternate providers, competition is, at best, token. At the same time, if non-public schools are priced out of the range of all but the most affluent, freedom of choice is no longer there. The Catholic school system, in particular, has historically served and been supported largely by middle-class working families.

Parochial schools and the religious sisters who in the past staffed them almost exclusively in the elementary grades and to a large extent at the secondary level have been the object of some mostly good-natured ribbing. Exaggerating what 'ster said makes for good comedy, especially for those who have personally experienced it. The classic of that genre, Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Shine Up, is playing now at the Candlelight Music Theater in Ardentown.

In the real world in and around Wilmington, parochial grade schools were the boot camps for Salesianum, Archmere, St. Elizabeth and Ursuline. Beyond that, many of the products of parochial education aspired for Georgetown, Fordham and, up there at the pinnacle, Notre Dame. If they didn't make it, it wasn't because of lack of effort by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Benedictines, Franciscans and Order of St. Ursula.

Most of the sisters are gone now. The schools are staffed almost entirely by lay persons -- 801 teachers and 191 others on the instructional staffs in Delaware. With families to provide for and lifestyles that are in no way comparable to those led by members of the religious orders, personnel costs -- by far, the largest factor in any school budget -- have escalated far beyond what could have been imagined a generation or two ago.

Within the Catholic community, there is an awareness that also has taken a toll on the raison d'Ítre of parochial education. In a recently published pastoral letter, Bishop Michael Saltarelli called for a renewal of faith teaching "to form a new generation of leaders steeped in the mission and ministry of the Catholic schools." The contribution of Catholic school graduates to all areas of community life and service has long been recognized.

An endowment fund better able to support the need is hardly a complete answer. It is impractical to suggest that the diocese and its parishes will be able to fully subsidize the schools as they once did. Two Catholic schools -- Christ Our King in north Wilmington and Holy Spirit in Garfield Park -- did not reopen this term. Others may be in jeopardy. On the other hand, a new school, Christ the Teacher, opened a few years ago in the Glasgow area, indicating a continuing desire to have Catholic education provided in expanding suburbia.

Diocesan officials declined Delaforum requests to discuss the status of the schools and their future for this article.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the issue needs to be discussed on the public policy level. Not only Catholic schools but also other non-public schools have long been a significant part of the education establishment in Delaware.

Nearly one in five Delaware students attend them; the proportion is somewhat higher in New Castle County. The Red Clay Consolidated School District has the largest portion of school-age children living within its geographic boundaries -- 31.5% -- not attending its schools. Brandywine ranks second with 25.1%. Still, the General Assembly all but ignores that significant portion of its constituency when it deals with education. Most public school officials approach it almost entirely as a competitive thing.

It is past time for some rethinking. A vibrant alternative will not damage public education. Having both systems strong and pushing for the highest quality they are able to achieve will have a synergistic effect to the benefit of the entire state and all its children.

With Catholic and other faith-based schools, religion tends to shut off the argument. Freedom of choice stops where separation of church and state begins. A bit of ingenuity, however, should be able to deal with an important issue without doing violence to the Constitution or Bill of Rights.

In the celebrated Cleveland, Ohio, voucher case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there was no violation in allowing low-income parents to decide which form of education they desired for their children. Allowing the vouchers to be spent in church-related schools evened the proverbial playing field. Albeit split five-to-four, the honorable justices ruled that nondiscimination is still the law.

Surprisingly, no one has come forward to challenge Delaware's charter school law by arguing the same line of judicial reasoning. That law singles out education providers with religious affiliation as the sole entities ineligible to seek a charter. No matter that many of them have literally centuries of experience in the field, they are shut out while commercial newcomers seeking profits are welcome.

Another possibility is to emulate Canada where multiculturalism prevails in allowing parents to designate to which school their education tax dollars should go. A few years ago Quebec province gave up direct financing of church-affiliated schools in favor of going along with the system in the rest of the country. Several European countries still provide direct financing to Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox schools.

Given that going to that extent would be challengeable in this country and could, indeed, harm public education serving the majority of the population, an acceptable nondiscriminatory variation in a state like Delaware would be to allow taxpayers with children enrolled in alternative schools to take a personal income tax credit equal to a portion of their school property tax or a fixed amount calculated on the amount of their rent.

If nothing else, it's worth exploring.

You probably find it hard these days to go to the mailbox and not find unsolicited pitches offering amazing no-interest terms if you sign up for a credit card. The card firms expect, of course, that the accounts will continue to carry a balance past the no-interest period. The Dallas Morning News provides a primer for anyone uncertain whether to sign up. CLICK HERE to read it.


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