Up Front and Personal

Child Benefit Funds and School Choice Plans

By Rita E. Piro

Two weeks ago, the Biden administration rolled out its much-touted child benefit plan. The first of at least six monthly cash payments of $300 per child under 6, and $250 per child 6 or older, hit the bank accounts of nearly 40 million families.

While the funds may be applied to anything from a luxury car lease to an Atlantic City weekend, the hope is that the majority of the money will be used for books, school supplies, professional tutoring, trips to museums and household bills, anything that will directly impact the kids in their educational and personal development.

While the Biden administration may tout their child benefit bill as revolutionary in its potential to positively affect our country’s children and youth, the fact is that much of the nation has already had in place for decades a government-funded school choice plan of tax vouchers and credits that has long been proven to boost the life experience of all children and in a far more effective and permanent manner.

Documented in more than 30 research studies over the last 20 years, all but two have reported consistent beneficial effects including increased daily attendance, improved test scores, reading comprehension, and critical thinking skills, higher graduation rates, and even better citizenship in the 26 states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) with school choice programs.

School choice is not just a matter of education policy but is also one of the most significant and far-reaching issues of both civil rights and social justice for our time. Year after year, our most at-risk children, those from poor, immigrant, minority, and working-class families, are relegated to a seat in low-performing, often failing, government public schools where they are afforded little opportunity and resources to carve out a path for themselves to a future on fire with achievement, purpose, and commitment.

Rethink, reimagine and reinforce has become the other set of three R’s embraced by Catholic schools, which have taken center stage for safely opening their doors and keeping them open during these COVID-challenged months. While there is no question that Catholic schools would reap the greatest benefit from nationwide school choice in the form of greatly increased enrollments, there is equally no question that Catholic schools would provide our nation’s students with the most emancipatory roadmap out of poverty and hardship.

The Roman Catholic Church operates the world’s largest non-governmental school system. Almost 20% of its students are non-Catholic, up from 2.7% in 1970. Many schools serve all-minority and low-income enrollments. Key findings of the independent research community over the last 10 years regarding Catholic schools (housed at www.ncea.org) show that the overall Catholic high school graduation rate of 98% includes schools in the poorest and most crime-filled neighborhoods in the country.

A black or Hispanic child is nearly 50% more likely to graduate from high school and 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college if he or she attends a Catholic school. Nearly 87% of Catholic high school graduates nationwide attend college and in the metropolitan New York area, the graduation and promotion rates of our Catholic schools are close to 100%.

Withholding government funds from faith-based schools is rooted in the bigotry and bias of 19th-century anti-Catholic laws known as the Blaine Amendments. Named for James G. Blaine, a member of the House of Representatives from Maine, his 1876 proposal prohibited state funding for church-sponsored schools. For more than a century and a half starting before the American Revolution, public schools included general, non-denominational Christian religious studies, and practices such as prayer and Bible study, as part of their curriculum. Blaine specifically singled out schools, “under the control of any religious sect or denomination”, a provision recognized as a direct swipe at the Catholic Church and its predominantly immigrant congregations.

Although his amendments were never passed by Congress nor adopted nationwide, 37 states were required to enter Blaine’s proposal into their state constitutions in order to be admitted to the union. Still today, the Blaine Amendments continue to provide a roadblock to our children’s creative, intellectual and social self-actualization.

A recently released poll conducted by Real Clear Opinion Research indicates support for nationwide school choice has increased to a new level (71%) of registered voters. The poll also found support for school choice is virtually equal among racial and political groups, with 73% of white, 66% of black, 68% of Hispanic, and 66% of Asian voters in support. In addition, 75% of Republicans favor school choice, along with 69% of Democrats.

As of January 2020, 14 states are considering bills that would permit a portion of a family’s taxes to follow them to the private, parochial or religious school of their choice for tuition, books, and other special services. Tuition tax credits and vouchers are not rescue plans or handouts for Catholic and other faith-based schools. They are a much needed and, as recent national polling indicates, much-desired means to a truly transformational education for thousands of children and youth from all demographics.

Piro is a multi-award-winning freelance writer for The Catholic Press Association and a lifelong resident within the Diocese of Brooklyn.