By Frank Wessling
All of the attention given to improving schools in recent years hasn’t cut into a general anxiety about their performance. We still hear that our students, our children, don’t measure up to their peers around the world, are falling further behind in some subject, or that the schools themselves are poorly organized.
The federal No Child Left Behind initiative began with noble intentions but continually feels like a straitjacket — an ineffective straitjacket — to educators. And now the economy adds another blow by squeezing the money pipeline. Not only must administrators and teachers keep trying to do better, they must do it with less in immediate resources.
Catholic schools and their communities of support face the same pressures. But they continue to do well. The atmosphere both in the schools and the community, while not exactly serene, is lightened with a faith that holds off anxiety. They continue to focus on the mission of teaching in that faith-filled context. It makes a difference.
That difference deserves support as a public benefit. It means a steady flow of good citizens, most of whom help keep alive the religious vitality and healthy pluralism that make this country distinctive in the world. It also means better prepared Catholic adults for the future vitality of the church. Not that Catholic children attending public schools don’t become good Catholic adults. They can. But Catholic schools can generally do much more to help parents with a well-rounded and deeper religious formation.
That difference also saves tax money. The state and local school districts are not paying the $9,000 or more per year that it costs them per pupil. The school users in Catholic and other nonpublic schools pay the bills — while also paying the taxes that keep public schools going. It makes good sense to keep the small tax incentives that help the nonpublic school maintain its alternative presence in the American schooling mix.
Governor Chet Culver’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year would cut the modest tax credits that currently help with nonpublic school support. Gifts made to a School Tuition Organization (STO) in Iowa qualify for a 65 percent state tax credit. The governor’s budget proposal would reduce that credit to 40 percent. It would also cut the total allowable credits from $7.5 million to $5 million.
Such reductions mean less help for families that need some help with Catholic school tuition – that’s where the STO money goes — and more pressure on public school budgets from students who otherwise could be in Catholic schools. The prudent budget choice would be to do nothing that might lessen support for accredited nonpublic schools.
Money from the tax credit program flows to the lower-income families desiring a Catholic or other parochial school education. Some educators criticize parochial schools for taking in only affluent students and the easy-to-educate — in effect, leaving the poorer child behind. With the STO program we can all help the poorer child in a way that makes economic good sense.
Tell the governor and state legislators to keep the tuition tax credit program at its current level.