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CA Conference: School choice is social justice

By Valerie Schmalz

Educators, political advocates, and national experts gathered this month in Oakland to brainstorm how to bring educational choice to all California families.

“This fight is essential. It is critical. It is about social justice for the working poor,” said San Jose Bishop Oscar Cantú, chair of the California Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops.

The goal of the first-ever conference sponsored by California’s bishops: to build a political movement to give every California family the economic ability to send their children to the private, parochial, or public school of their choice.

Four years ago, no state offered universal school choice funding – today 10 states do. Thirty-two states have passed some form of school choice legislation, said Peter Murphy, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist for Invest in Education. Louisiana’s governor says educational freedom is his top priority, said Nathan Sanders of Ed Choice. South Carolina has universal school choice, he said, Idaho and Michigan are thinking about it.

The purpose of the Advancing Educational Excellence Summit was to unite the community in a common strategy, develop leadership, and build coalitions to craft, initiate and institute policy in California. 

Educational pluralism – choice for all parents for their children – is the objective, California Catholic Conference executive director Kathleen Domingo said.

California Catholic Conference Executive Director Kathleen Domingo and Invest in Education’s Peter Murphy.

For decades educational choice seemed a doomed effort in California. A Democratic majority in the California legislature with deep political and financial ties to the California Teachers’ Association has blocked any efforts. But a sea change around the country gave those present cause for hope.

“We can all vote,” said Oakland Bishop Michael Barber, a former chair of the education committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and with Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Marc V. Trudeau, members of the California bishops’ education committee that sponsored the summit at the Cathedral of Christ the Light Event Center. “We have a lot of Latino Catholics becoming citizens. If you want to break down the power of the unions … we also need candidates to implement these ideas. Learn the teachings of the Church and communicate them.”

“What about California, how do we join this parade?” asked Murphy.

Given the impediments in the California political establishment, the best hope is the U.S. Congress and the federal Educational Choice for Children Act, HR 531 and S 120, Murphy argued. The Act would provide direct tax credits to corporations and other donors and “drives big dollars into these fundraising arms to distribute as scholarships,” Murphy said, without any cost to taxpayers or using any government funding. Twenty states have some version of the tax credit school choice option, Murphy said.

Oakland Bishop Michael Barber speaking at the conference.

The form has survived challenges before the U.S. Supreme Court. The legislation was introduced by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, R, and Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, R, and has the support of two-thirds of Republican lawmakers in Congress as well as the support of more than 130 national and state-based organizations. Six California U.S. representatives have endorsed the legislation.

California supporters can lobby their U.S. representative to support – or not oppose the legislation–if it moves forward, Murphy said.

Catholic social teaching states that school choice is a matter of social justice for all children and families. The latest guideline for Catholic voters published by the U.S. bishops last year – in time for this year’s elections, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” reiterates that teaching: “Parents—the first and most important educators—have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children, including public, private, and religious schools. Government, through such means as tax credits and publicly funded scholarships, should help provide resources for parents, especially those of modest means, to exercise this basic right without discrimination. Students in all educational settings should have opportunities for moral and character formation consistent with the beliefs and responsibilities of their parents. (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, Catholic Education, No. 82)

To implement and pass legislation, Catholics and others of good will, need to act, Christiansen said, and work together with those of different faiths and no faith at all.

“What you are endeavoring to do now — you have to bring people like me in, and then bring others who do not believe as we do,” said Christiansen, a Latter Day Saint and sixth-generation Californian whose forebears worked with Catholics and Jews to bring farmland out of California desert.

“Religious freedom is not the issue,” said Christiansen. “My theme is to add parents back into the education equation. We can really think about kids as that primary piece. Politics is hard. But it is also additive. We have to build relationships. We also have to do the right thing by doing things right. Ninety percent of politics is just showing up. You can’t sit in the back. You have to be up front and engaged.”

“Go forward in peace,” Christiansen said, “but let’s be successful.”