Ronnie Polaneczky: School choice? Practice what you preach, Chaput

Posted: January 31, 2012

CATHOLIC Schools Week began yesterday with a plea from Philly Archbishop Charles Chaput for Catholics to push for passage of a school-voucher bill that would let parents choose where to spend education dollars.

"We need to press our lawmakers . . . to pass school choice," Chaput writes in his weekly column on the website Catholic Philly. "Vouchers . . . return the power of educational choice to parents, where it belongs."

Then why is the Archdiocese of Philadelphia taking choice from parents whose kids attend archdiocesan elementary schools slated to close in June?

"We've been told that we have to use the school that the Archdiocese has assigned to us," says Megan Thomson, whose daughter attends St. Laurentius in Fishtown, which is to merge with nearby St. Peter's.

Thomson, a former Catholic-school teacher, has no issue with St. Peter's. But, she says, "I thought the Archdiocese was an advocate for parental choice."

Obviously, Catholic-school parents are still reeling from the Archdiocese's decision to close or merge 49 schools in June. Denying them options in dealing with the closures is not just insensitive, it's hypocritical.

Shortsighted, too. But let's take this step-by-step.

Some background: Archdiocesan high schools have open-enrollment, so parents can select the one they believe best fits the needs of their family. More than curriculum comes into play - proximity to home or a parent's workplace, for instance.

The Archdiocese's elementary schools, though, have traditionally been closed to families who are members of other Catholic parishes (yet they are open to non-Catholics, which I'll get to in a bit).

A child may attend a competing parish school only if the pastors of both schools deem the reasons for the transfer "meritorious."

Oh, that word! Who's to judge the "merit" of a family's decision? Still, on the face of it, one reason for the prohibition is halfway understandable.

"The central purpose of the parish elementary schools is to form and educate the parish children in their faith," reads a new archdiocesan letter to pastors that clarifies admission policies for parish and new regional elementary schools (which will educate kids from several parishes).

"This involves helping children make the connection between their school community and their parish community."

So, when a regional school is formed, keeping together children from the same parish builds on a pre-existing sense of unity.

If students are permitted to "scatter" to other schools, "this compromises the pastor's ability to be present to the students in a meaningful and visible way."

But there's another reason children at schools about to be regionalized should not be allowed to "abandon that school and select another location."

"The students within the . . . schools to be regionalized have been counted within the enrollment projection for the newly formed regional school," the letter explains. "Permitting these students to leave the school at the time of the newly formed regional school could jeopardize the success of the school."

In other words, the Archdiocese's opinion of what's best for the new school supersedes parents' opinion of what's best for their own kids.

That's where the hypocrisy comes in.

Opponents of school vouchers say that vouchers would destroy the public-education system for many to benefit the private education of a few. Yet the pro-voucher Archdiocese uses this same logic to deny choice to Catholic families upended by the closures.

And how's this for irony:

Right now, many non-Catholic families use archdiocesan elementary schools. Untethered by the politics of parish membership, they're free to choose the school that best fits their needs.

So the only way for Catholic parents to enjoy a similar freedom would be to quit the church. Only then could they exercise the choice that their own archbishop says belongs to them alone.

Way to grow the faith!

The nonsense of it all befuddles Thomson, a devout Catholic who cherishes her faith and is anguished by the possible loss of her neighborhood Catholic school.

"There has been so little common sense among the people on the Blue Ribbon Commission," said Thomson, referring to the highly credentialed archdiocesan panel that called for the school closure.

"Aren't they supposed to be intelligent people?"


Email polaner@phillynews.com. Call 215-854-2217. Columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Blog: www.philly.com/RonnieBlog. Twitter: @Ronnie Philly.

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