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When corporations 'step down,' only children get hurt

Archbishop Wenski's column for February 2020 edition of the Florida Catholic

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Learn, Serve, Lead, Succeed: This was the theme of this year’s Catholic Schools’ Week, recently observed throughout the U.S. It underscores the contributions that these faith-based schools make to the life of our nation and our state, and explains why parents support Catholic schools even when they make difficult sacrifices to do so while also supporting public schools with their hard-earned tax dollars.

The Catholic Church has long insisted that parents are the primary educators of their children. As such, public schools need to be more responsive to parents and, at the same time, parents should be free to choose other options that might best meet the needs of their school-age children. However, practically speaking, many parents because of financial constraints cannot opt to essentially pay twice to educate their children by paying taxes supporting government-run public schools and paying tuition to an alternative school of their choice.

In recent years, the State of Florida addressed this historic injustice by introducing policies that support parental empowerment in education. Today, parents truly have more options than ever before to consider and evaluate. These options include but are not limited to the following: public (including neighborhood, charter and magnet) or nonpublic schools; traditional brick-and-mortar schools, home or virtual schools; and blended learning programs (i.e. schools which combine virtual learning with traditional classroom instruction).

An essential part of the parental choice landscape are four scholarships programs available to parents: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low to middle-income families; the McKay Scholarship Program for students with special needs; the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with special needs; and, and the Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program for four-year-olds.

The Catholic Church proudly advocates for true parental empowerment in education. We support both legislation that expands state scholarship programs as well as a strong system of public education. We support policies which address the best interests of all schoolchildren. The availability of both private, including faith-based schools, as well as a well-funded public education system strengthens all schools. A government-run education monopoly breeds mediocrity and wastes dollars.

Yet, at the same time, our Catholic schools provide significant savings to the State of Florida. There are currently 77,609 K-12 children served in Florida’s 242 Catholic schools. The cost to educate these children in public schools would have been $567 million during the 2017-2018 school year. Even after subtracting out the value of the Florida Tax Credit, McKay and Gardiner scholarships provided to some 26,000 Catholic school students, these schools save the state more than $423 million per year. Despite this, those on the extreme left — including unfortunately the teachers’ union —oppose any support for faith-based schools, even support from private corporations who contribute in exchange for tax credits so that parents can choose the best option for their child. And, Catholic schools continue to academically outperform public schools.

While these scholarship programs have overcome challenges in our courts, opponents of parental empowerment in education are exerting pressure on businesses who have taken advantage of the Florida Tax Credit program to support parents. Because of this pressure, abetted by left-leaning editorial boards, some corporations have announced their withdrawal from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, alleging that a few schools “discriminate” against the LBGTQ community. These scholarship programs discriminate against nobody: Grant money goes to income-qualified parents, including parents who may be LBGTQ. The parents then choose the school best suited for their child — and, to date, no parent has complained about discrimination.

Among these newly “woke” corporations are two well-known banks, Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bank, who perhaps are engaging in such “virtue signaling” to paper over their own past misdeeds. Wells Fargo defrauded thousands of their customers with fake accounts. Fifth Third Bank settled in 2015 with the federal government for some $18 million for systematic racial discrimination against black and Hispanic customers.

And who is hurt by their withdrawal? Black and Hispanic parents — the majority of the scholarship recipients — who only want to provide an opportunity for their children.

Note: Since this column was posted, Fifth Third Bank has announced it would resume its contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Comments from readers

Lisa Shelly - 02/13/2020 06:52 AM
I'm very thankful Fifth Third Bank reconsidered. These scholarships are crucial for low-income students to be able to escape poor-performing public schools. Catholic schools have always been essential to to true school choice, now more than ever.

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