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Editorial columns

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Voucher money goes only toward education

The Feb. 21 article “Church plan shows where voucher funds will be going” by Mark GiaQuinta contains erroneous statements. It is false to claim that money from “the common school fund is (being) diverted to church steeples” or that “the common school fund has become part of a shell game to support religious activities.” Every penny received by parents from the Choice Scholarship Fund (vouchers) that pays tuition for their children in our Catholic schools is income used exclusively by the school. It is not diverted for the use of other purposes of the parish.

Our parishes pay millions to subsidize the operations of the Catholic schools of our diocese, schools that each year educate about 14,000 students, both Catholics and non-Catholics. The parish subsidy has historically been a heavy burden for many parishes. In recent years, some parishes, especially those in poorer neighborhoods where parents have not been able to afford the tuition, accumulated heavy debts. Some parishes have had to close their schools, a real tragedy for the children who were receiving an excellent education because, even with significant assistance from the diocese, they could not afford to keep their schools open.

What the piece is really referring to is a secondary or ancillary benefit of the voucher law. The writer’s assertions are incorrect. This ancillary benefit was already addressed by the justices of the Indiana Supreme Court when they ruled unanimously in 2013 that the state’s voucher program is constitutional. The court recognized that the Constitution does not prohibit government expenditures from which a religious institution might benefit in an ancillary manner. The court concluded: “We find that the only direct beneficiaries of the school voucher program are the participating parents and their children, and not religious schools.”

A parish with a school may benefit in such an ancillary and indirect manner from the voucher program. With additional tuition income, the school may not need to be subsidized as much by the parish. This is appropriate. Our parishes for their part have invested, and are investing, significant amounts of money in their schools – in some cases more than half their parish income. And Catholic school parents are not only contributing to the parish and paying school tuition, they are also paying taxes to support our public schools.

Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend overall save the Indiana public more than $100 million in education costs each year, costs that would otherwise have to be paid by significant tax increases. More specifically, Indiana’s school voucher program alone saves the public upwards of $5 million per year because the average voucher support of $4,092 per student is substantially less than the $9,000+ that public schools spend per student each year.

I believe the voucher debate really comes down to a fundamental philosophical issue: the rights of parents. The Catholic Church teaches that the right and the duty of parents to educate their children is essential, primary, irreplaceable and inalienable. The state cannot annul this right and has the duty to respect and promote it. The voucher law is a step in protecting this right. It provides public economic support to some parents who then can choose the schools to which they wish to send their children.

I wish to remind the writer, who mentions in his article his love for his Catholic faith, something I do not question, of the Catholic Church’s authentic teaching on this issue, a teaching reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council in these words: “The public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.” In any event, school voucher programs such as Indiana’s are constitutional. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the landmark Cleveland voucher program. And, as noted earlier, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Indiana voucher program in particular with a 5-0 vote in 2013.

I hope we can get beyond the heated rhetoric and focus on excellent education for all our children, in whatever school they attend. As a community, let’s be united in our support of all our schools, public and private.

Kevin C. Rhoades is bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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