Catholic-school students claim small shares of public education funding - Catholic Courier

Catholic-school students claim small shares of public education funding

Patti Donadio’s daughter, Angelina, is a June graduate of Canandaigua’s St. Mary’s School and plans to attend Geneva’s DeSales High School in the fall. How Angelina will travel there daily has been the source of some contention.


Donadio has been lobbying the Canandaigua City School District to transport her child to DeSales on a district school bus. Under New York state law, public school districts are only obligated to transport children to nonpublic schools of their choice within a 15-mile limit. Donadio’s home in Farmington is 22 miles from DeSales, so she lobbied the district to make an exception. The district turned her down.


John Zappia, assistant superintendent of the Canandaigua district — and a DeSales graduate — said “it breaks my heart” to deny Donadio’s request, but noted that the district can’t afford it. He said transporting the DeSales students outside the 15-mile limit would force the district to purchase and maintain a bus, and to pay a driver.
“If we made exceptions for one, we’d be making exceptions for all,” he said, noting that Canandaigua district students attend Catholic schools in Rochester, Brighton and Irondequoit. “That’s not an expense we’re budgeted for.”


Donadio said she’s upset that she will be forced to pay for public transportation so her child can attend DeSales.
“I’m a taxpayer,” she said. “What are my taxes going for?”


Church, state

Donadio’s question forms the heart of a debate that has raged in America for decades – how much of a right, if any, do nonpublic-school students have to public monies?


Opponents of government funding for religious schools and their students argue that such funding endangers the separation of church and state. Supporters of religious schools counter that they pay taxes, too, and should be entitled to a slice of the government school-funding pie.


Many states, including New York, already supply various services – including textbooks and special-educational services – to Catholic students through their local public-school districts. In fact, Zappia pointed out that Donadio’s taxes pay for various services from the Canandaigua district to which her child is entitled, including remedial services and computer materials. However, he said, the district believes it should follow the state guidelines on transportation.


“We do transport private-school students within the 15-mile limit,” he said.


Public school districts do provide some aid to Catholic-school students – but such districts also greatly benefit from the existence of Catholic schools, according to Gary Smith, the Diocese of Rochester’s assistant superintendent for business for Catholic schools. After subtracting the amount of money Catholic schools receive in state reimbursements for various mandated services — taking classroom attendance, for example – taxpayers provide significantly less funding to Catholic-school students than to their public-school counterparts, Smith noted.


“Monroe County alone saves more than $40 million,” Smith said after calculating the estimated cost of educating children in public schools vs. diocesan schools. “That’s why public-school parents, in a way, should be promoting Catholic schools because they’re saving (tax) money.”


Nonetheless, opponents of public funding for nonpublic schools have repeatedly challenged any form of aid – direct or indirect – to nonpublic schools or their pupils. In recent years, however, courts have grown warmer toward nonpublic schools. Over the past decade, for example, the Supreme Court shot down a challenge to tax-funded textbook aid to nonpublic school students; overturned its previous decision to bar public-school tutors from teaching inside religious schools; and ruled as constitutional the issuance of tax-funded vouchers parents can use to pay nonpublic-school tuition.


Some states, like New York, have for years loaned “nonsectarian” textbooks to Catholic-school students, provided them bus transportation – within limits – and extended them special-education services. Yet other states provide virtually no services to nonpublic-school students, seeing such provisions as breaches in the church-state wall America has always upheld.


Indeed, Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Carroll, diocesan assistant superintendent for government services and administration, noted that in some states, parents have to pay to have their children bused to Catholic schools, which also receive no textbook aid from their states.


A little more than half of all states extend some form of services to Catholic schools and students, according to Michael J. Guerra, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, based in Washington, D.C. Guerra added that a small number of states are now offering such items as tuition tax credits for Catholic-school parents, offering that as a sign of hope that the public arena may be becoming more receptive toward school choice.


“The whole society is strengthened when kids – particularly low-income kids – get a good education,” he said.

Principals in the middle


A casual and nonscientific survey of Catholic-school principals in the Diocese of Rochester revealed overall agreement with an assessment by Sister Carroll that public school districts in the diocese are generally fair in their dealings with Catholic schools. Principals from Pittsford, Chili, Elmira, Waterloo, Brighton, Webster and Greece all said they felt they were usually treated fairly – and, in some cases, very well – by public school districts. Yet some principals noted that their relationships with public school districts aren’t always wine and roses. Joseph Holleran, principal of St. Lawrence School in Greece, may have had the most humorous take on the subject.


“We have relationships with five public school districts,” he said. “Our interactions stretch from being the distant, unsavory cousin that you must invite to the party but hope will not stay long nor impinge on your hospitality, to a good, professional working relationship.”


Whatever their dealings with public school districts, Catholic-school principals said the relationships could be vastly improved in several areas. Elizabeth Berliner, principal of Elmira’s Holy Family Junior High School, noted, for example, that it’s wasteful for the state to allocate textbook funding for nonpublic school students through the public school districts in which they reside.


“I can only order the number of books from each district as students that I have (from that district),” she said. “I have only one student from each of four districts. So just to get my new science books ordered, I have to place seven different orders.” Berliner added that it would be more efficient and cost-effective for Catholic schools to order textbooks directly from the state.


Yet for supporters of Catholic education, the bigger issue is how the nation should separate religion from government while ensuring that all its children get a good education.


Guerra said the nation needs to look at Catholic schools in a different way.


“They are not simply assets for the church,” he said. “They are an asset for the larger community.”

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