Families demand educational options at National School Choice Week rally

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PROVIDENCE — Hundreds of students, families, teachers and school administrators gathered in the State House rotunda last Thursday to rally for school choice — the belief that all parents should have the right to choose how their child is educated — and to call for greater state support for alternatives to public education so that school choice can become a reality for more Rhode Island families.

“What we’re doing here today is we’re advocating. We’re advocating for ourselves but also for the thousands of students who are not here today,” said Rachel McGuire, executive director of Rhode Island Families for School Choice, to the crowd.

The rally coincided with the celebration of National School Choice Week, a nationwide movement that included this year more than 20,000 events across all 50 states. School choice advocates support greater parental choice in their children’s education, which for Catholic and other private school families often means the ability to direct a portion of their tax dollars to their child’s school rather than a public school their child is not attending. In Rhode Island, charter schools, homeschoolers and advocates for public education reform have also joined the movement, all advocating for government policies that support wider options in education.

This year, legislative initiatives supported by Rhode Island Families for School Choice include raising the cap on the corporate tax credit scholarship program from $1.5 million to $5 million; creating a tax-supported education savings account for each student to be used at the discretion of the parents; reducing regulation on charter schools; and expanding education programs, including the free SAT and dual college enrollment programs, to all Rhode Island students.

“I anticipate something great not just because of the bigger coalition we have at Rhode Island Families for School Choice this year, but also because the tone has changed in Washington with regard to school choice,” said McGuire following the rally.

In addition to providing a venue for advocates to call upon their elected representatives, the rally also provided families an opportunity to meet their counterparts from other schools in the almost festival-like atmosphere surrounding the booths and student performances on the State House upper level. Students manning tables distributed information about Catholic, Jewish and Islamic schools as well as charter and private community schools, showing the wide range of alternative options to public education.

According to Edward Bastia, business administrator for the diocesan Catholic Schools Office, raising the cap on the corporate tax credit scholarship program is an especially pressing concern for Catholic school families, as the program enables low-income students who might not otherwise be able to afford a Catholic education to receive scholarships through the FACE of RI scholarship-granting organization. According to Bastia, 503 students participated in the corporate tax credit scholarship program in 2015, providing a net savings of $6.7 million in educational expenses to Rhode Island taxpayers.

“This program provides economically challenged families with the opportunity to choose the best means of education for their child,” he said, adding that the program is beneficial for the state from an economic standpoint as it provides tax credits that attract local businesses.

Matt Fitzgerald, a member of the Rhode Island Catholic School Parent Federation, has two children at St. Rose of Lima School, Warwick. He thinks a taxpaying family’s financial status should not prevent them from choosing their child’s education.

“Parents need to be able to choose what’s best for their child and if a parent decides a Catholic school is the best decision for their child, I don’t think there should be any barriers to that,” he said.

Though opponents of education savings accounts argue that the program would take a significant amount of funding away from public schools, Fitzgerald says this isn’t necessarily the case.

“I think the reality is parents need just a little extra help in a lot of cases,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be a huge amount of money to help out a lot of parents.”

He also pointed out that the policies proposed by school choice advocates for elementary and high school students are similar to those that already exist in higher education, where students may use most forms of income-based federal grant money at the university of their choice, including private universities.

“To me, that’s always been an interesting argument. You turn 18 and suddenly you have school choice.”

While some of the students present at the rally were too young to understand the impact their voices could have on their education, and simply enjoyed the opportunity to perform at the State House, for others, the experience opened their eyes to the workings of the legislative system with regard to education.

“I think it’s more so for seniors as you start voting,” said John Larsen, a senior at La Salle Academy.

Marcus Colantonio, a seventh-grader and member of the student council at St. Mary School, Cranston, said his teachers educated students about the school choice movement in class.

“School choice is about when people have the right to choose what school they want to go to,” he said.

“I think you should be able to do that because some schools have other opportunities that kids should be able to use,” added classmate Arianna Rodi.

Several choral and instrumental groups from Rhode Island Catholic schools performed at the State House throughout the day, including Mount St. Charles Academy, St. Rose of Lima School, The Prout School, St. Mary School, St. Mary Academy – Bay View and Monsignor Clarke School.