By Bishop James Massa
Catholic education in New York State traces its roots back to the first half of the 19th century, and continues to be a vital part of the fabric of our state, preparing children and young adults for success in life, providing a world-class education while grounding them in the Catholic tradition of selfless service to their fellow men and women.
The Catholic elementary, secondary and higher education system in New York was built and maintained largely through the heroism of orders of women and men religious, with a focus on underserved and immigrant populations that continues to this day. All of the citizens of our state owe these remarkable sisters, brothers and priests a debt of gratitude, but none more so than those who were educated, or whose children or grandchildren were educated, in these marvelous institutions.
As the number of vocations to these religious orders have dwindled, our schools increasingly have relied on the gifts of lay faculty and administrators to maintain the mission begun by the institutions’ founders. Though the challenges are greater now than they ever have been, our schools and colleges continue to be a lifeline out of poverty and a key to a brighter future.
The gravest challenge facing both higher and lower Catholic education today is affordability. Rising costs translate into higher tuition for parents and students. And taxpayer subsidized public elementary, secondary and colleges have put our schools at a competitive disadvantage in reaching the very students who need them the most.
We have long maintained that, in the interest of parental rights and fairness, New York should institute a program to provide parents the means to select the best elementary or secondary school for their child. Such a program could operate similar to the state’s higher education Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which provides need-based grants to students to use at whatever school best suits their needs. In other words, the money follows the student, not the institution.
However, not only have such proposals for elementary and secondary education been rejected time and again due to the opposition of the public school teachers’ unions, but now the state is considering a fundamental change in TAP to favor public colleges over private ones. We are deeply concerned about the impact this can have on Catholic colleges’ ability to compete with public schools that already enjoy heavy taxpayer subsidies. And we are concerned that it could lead to a shortage of seats at public institutions, which do a fine job but have limited capacity. We are concerned for communities in which private colleges are a major employer. Most of all, we are concerned for students, whose futures often depend on finding the right college for them. While in many cases these are public institutions, in many others, a private setting is best.
We applaud our elected officials for seeking creative ways to increase college affordability, but we are concerned that by focusing solely on one slice of the higher education community, rather than maintaining the historic principle of allowing students to use their need-based aid anywhere, we may see unintended negative consequences that can be easily avoided by simply expanding choice for all, beginning in elementary school and going through college.
As Catholic leaders, we want our public colleges to have all the resources they need to provide the best possible education for their students, many of whom are Catholic and participate in the campus ministry programs we sponsor in these public settings. At the same time, we believe that competition and choice in education are the keys to student success at every level – elementary, secondary and college.
Our legislative officials have an opportunity this year to take courageous action to affirm these principles. We urge them to do it for the sake of all our students in New York State.
Auxiliary Bishop James Massa is the Moderator of the Curia and the Vicar for Higher Education in the Diocese of Brooklyn.