PROVIDENCE — State Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist’s proposals to eliminate state money for the textbook loan program for the parents of private and parochial school children and for the free breakfast program has created concern among Catholic school officials and lawmakers who have struggled over making similar cuts in the past.
Gist’s proposals in the Education Department’s FY 2011 budget would eliminate $240,000 in state aid to purchase the textbooks, and $20,000 in the school breakfast program, forcing already financially struggling municipalities to absorb the costs of both programs.
Dr. David Beaudoin, Secretary for Catholic Education and Evangelization, emphasized that the proposal to eliminate state money for textbooks used in private and parochial schools “must be informed by the fact that these textbooks are ‘loaned’ to taxpaying parents for use by their children during the school year.
“These books are not given to schools or students,” Dr. Beaudoin stated. “They are loaned to taxpaying parents who exercise their right to choose the best schools for their children. Catholic schools in Rhode Island educate thousands of students.”
He added, “Policy and lawmakers ought to give serious consideration to this fact and implications as they consider the budget.”
Blessed Sacrament School Principal June Spencer described the textbook loan program as a “blessing.”
“Schools like mine would greatly be affected by such decisions,” she continued. “This program has enabled us to keep our curriculum current.”
Spencer noted that the cost of an individual textbook is about $60, making impossible for most families to pay for books when they are struggling to afford the cost of tuition.
“If they start with the books, who’s to say that busses aren’t next,” the principal of the inner city school that serves a number of low-income families emphasized, noting that the cuts could have a domino effect and lead to the elimination of other vital programs and services.
Spencer added that 60 participants are enrolled in the school breakfast program at Blessed Sacrament, which is free for all students in the City of Providence.
“In Christianity, we don’t like to take away anything that we have already given,” she said.
“Our parents are taxpayers, too,” Spencer added. “They are entitled to these services. They pay tuitions and taxes.”
Father Bernard Healey, governmental liaison for the diocese, says he hopes Commissioner Gist will reconsider the cutting of programs, such as breakfast for poor and needy children suggesting that that they “truly serve the common good of our state and its most valuable asset for the future, our school children.”
“Commissioner Gist's comments on textbooks for parochial and private school families was not only misinformed but shortsighted,” said Father Healey.
“The textbook loan program has existed in R.I. for decades and provides students and their tax-paying families with much needed textbooks. Private and parochial schools save the state and local government millions of dollars each year in educational expenses and to suggest that the elimination of the small amount of funding dedicated to the textbook loan program is truly a shortsighted policy. The textbook loan program has enjoyed great support from members of the General Assembly over the years and I don't see it wavering any time soon. Commissioner Gist seems to be out of touch with the great benefit both educationally and financially that our Catholic schools provide the state.”
Father Healey suggested that Commissioner Gist wasn’t familiar with the history of Catholic schools in the United States or the textbook loan program in Rhode Island. “In other states such programs are constitutionally prohibited by the Blaine Amendment but such is not the case in Rhode Island where the program has enjoyed great support,” he said.
According to the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm protecting the free expression of all religious traditions, the Blaine Amendments are provisions in dozens of state constitutions that prohibit the use of state funds at "sectarian" schools. They're named for James G. Blaine, who proposed such an amendment to the U.S. Constitution while he was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1875. The amendment passed overwhelmingly (180-7) in the House, but failed (by 4 votes) in the Senate.
Although the amendment failed narrowly in the U.S. Congress, state-level versions were successful. And in several states, adoption of Blaine Amendments was made an explicit condition for entering the Union. Today, 37 states have provisions placing some form of restriction on government aid to "sectarian" schools and their equivalents that go far beyond any limits in the U.S. Constitution.
The Beckett Fund suggests that Blaine Amendments were passed as a direct result of the nativist, anti-Catholic bigotry that was widespread in American politics during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In a 2000 U. S. Supreme Court decision (Mitchell v. Helms) the court explicitly recognized that use of the term "pervasively sectarian" in law was a "doctrine born of bigotry that should be buried now."
Father Angelo Carusi, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church, questioned if Catholic school parents are being singled out.
“Should these parents be punished because they are concerned for the moral well-being of their children?” he questioned. “If our students don’t have books, our schools will be forced to close. Is the public school system equipped to handle all of our students?”
“I have concerns about the proposals to cut the program that provides textbooks to private and parochial schools,” said Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed.
“Private schools are not immune to today’s economic problems. Parents who send their children to private schools pay taxes just like anyone else, in addition to their tuition, while reducing the demand for public education services.”
Sen. Paiva Weed emphasized that she is also concerned about the proposed state aid cut to the morning nutrition program.
“The evidence is overwhelming that the school breakfast program improves student performance, and quality education is the path out of poverty. We will work with the next governor on his budget proposals to maintain wise investments and make decisions based upon the interests of all Rhode Islanders,” the senate president said.
Commissioner Gist did not respond to a request for comment by press time.