Parent group seeks school choice legislation

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PROVIDENCE — Bob Coderre doesn’t mind sharing his well-rounded upbringing in Pawtucket. He attended the city’s public schools before enrolling at St. Raphael Academy for his high school years before going on to college.

When he became a father, Coderre wanted for his own children the same formative experience that he had growing up. But as a single dad of three, he quickly discovered that he needed help to achieve the same upbringing for his children that he had.

To transfer his twin boys, Jack and David, from the Pawtucket public school they attended to begin the sixth grade at St. Teresa School, and to keep his daughter Hannah at St. Raphael would cost approximately $20,000 a year. Even with his job as a mid-level manager working for a state agency, he found that tuition costs were outpacing his ability to make his dream of a blended public and private school education for his children a reality.

“You only get one shot to raise your kids and to educate them. You may have to ask for help,” he said.

So he applied for financial aid, and as part of his award package Coderre received for each of his children a FACE of Rhode Island Scholarship via the Rhode Island Scholarship Tax Credit Program.

The program provides a credit on corporate income taxes for donations companies make to nonprofit organizations that provide private school scholarships. The companies receive tax credits of 75 percent of their contribution, but they receive as much as 90 percent if they meet certain conditions over a two-year period.

Students who receive scholarships from the program must have household incomes at or below 250 percent of the poverty level, which in 2013 is $57,625 for a family of four. FACE of Rhode Island is one of five scholarship granting organizations in the state.

While the tax credit program has been beneficial to families like the Coderres, the Rhode Island Catholic School Parent Federation is calling for an expansion of the program to allow for more families to benefit. The present challenge to expanding the program is to increase the ceiling on the amount of tax credits offered, which in turn would provide an incentive for more corporations to donate to the scholarship granting organizations. Currently, the total amount of tax credits offered is capped at $1 million. Each corporate donor can receive only $100,000 in tax credits each year, and cannot use surplus donations in one year to generate tax credits in future years.

James Sheil, president of the parent federation, says that although his group is appreciative of the school busing and textbook reimbursement programs currently funded by the state for students in private schools, they would like to have more options available for financially struggling families when it comes to school choice.

“We’re pushing for someone in the House and Senate to introduce legislation to create a voucher program,” Sheil said.

Last week, the federation – a group of parents with liaisons in each of the 43 elementary and nine high schools across the diocese, which over the last 15 years has been dedicated to making a Catholic school education available to a wider range of students – sponsored a legislative reception for members of the General Assembly at the Statehouse.

Leslie Davis Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations for the Indiana-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, served as the keynote speaker.

The foundation, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization founded in 1996 by the late economist Milton Friedman and his wife Rose, promotes school choice as the most effective and equitable way to improve the quality of K-12 education in America.

“As a parent, you simply don’t know what your child will need as that child grows,” said Hiner. “You don’t know whether the school that is assigned to you is going to be the school that will meet the needs for any one of your children, let alone all of your children.”

School vouchers would provide parents a helpful resource in determining their child’s educational journey, whether they attend public, charter or private school, not necessarily a Catholic school.

The voucher would in essence allow for the taxpayer funds that would be spent to educate the child in one school to be applied toward the cost of their education in the other. For students moving from one public school system to another, a voucher would eliminate the need for a family to relocate to another community in order to enroll their child in the public school system there.

Hiner said that much of the opposition to such school choice programs across the country comes from teachers’ unions, who have expressed concerns that positions could be eliminated if students move from one school to another.

She counters that school choice programs would instead create jobs for educators.

“It is simply immoral for any of us to stand up and believe that we should block the ability of that child to move out of an impossible situation and move into a situation where the child can be successful. There should be no barriers for any child to attend any school where that child can learn and be successful. That’s what school choice is about and that’s why we work so hard to achieve it,” Hiner said.

Ten students representing Catholic schools from across the diocese were honored at the Statehouse by the House and Senate with Achievement Resolutions last week. Nominations were submitted to the Catholic Schools Office by schools on behalf of student achievement in the areas of academics, athletics and the arts. Ten students were selected from among these to receive the state honors.

Academics

Bridget Bernardo

Msgr. Clark School,

Wakefield

Sixth-grader Bridget Bernardo was honored for being one of 12 students in the nation to be selected to serve as a reporter for the student magazine, Time for Kids.

Grace O’Coin

St. Margaret School,

East Providence

Grace was honored for being a national winner in the InvestWrite competition, a national writing competition.

Stephanie DiLucia

St. Mary Academy-Bay View,

East Providence

Based on her 2011 PSAT results, Stephanie is a National Hispanic Award recipient.

Isabella Fielding

St. Mary Academy-Bay View,

East Providence

Isabella is a 2012 Scholastic

Art & Writing Award National Gold Medal recipient for the Northeast region.

Zachary Mitsmenn

St. Raphael Academy, Pawtucket

Zachary won the Wendy’s Heisman Award, recognized as one of the two most outstanding seniors in Rhode Island. The award honors well-rounded students who excel in learning, performing and leading in the classroom, on the field and in the community.

Arts

Dara Starring

St. Thomas Regional School, Providence

Dara was one of 36 winners in different categories of the UCT Safety Poster Contest last year as an eighth-grader. She now attends La Salle Academy.

Hannah Farmer

Elizah Farmer

Emily Petrie

St. Mary Academy-Bay View,

East Providence

Hannah, Elizah and Emily create a jewelry company, EHE, which makes and sells hand-painted bracelets, donating 50 percent of the proceeds to LOVE?146, a charity that works to prevent child trafficking through prevention and after-care solutions.

Athletics

Alyson Walsh

Immaculate Conception School, Cranston

Alyson was the first place cross country runner in the state.