Hundreds of students, as well as parents and teachers, addressed Roman Catholic Masses throughout the Philadelphia Archdiocese over the weekend to urge parishioners to lobby their legislators to support tax-funded school vouchers.
"Please help to pass school-voucher legislation?… not just for my family, but for all families who want their kids to experience lifelong success," said Patrick McCann, 16, a Roman Catholic High School junior, addressing churchgoers at the 10 a.m. Mass at St. Monica Church in South Philadelphia.
Called Voucher Sunday, the archdiocese-organized effort was part of a campaign to get legislative action in Harrisburg before Pennsylvania lawmakers take their summer break. In October, the state Senate approved a bill that would provide publicly funded tuition vouchers to help poor students in failing schools transfer to other institutions, whether public, private, or parochial. The legislation would also lift the $75 million funding cap on the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which gives tax breaks to businesses that provide tuition funding for low-income students. The fund would be allowed to increase to $100 million.
But the bill is not a priority in the House, and with legislators in the midst of annual negotiations on the budget for the fiscal year that starts July?1, an issue as contentious as vouchers is seen as a longshot for now.
In a recent column, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput called the next few weeks "crucial" and exhorted Catholics to press their legislators ("Call them. Write them. E-mail them. Visit them.") to act on vouchers and increased EITC funding.
This weekend, Chaput's foot soldiers rallied to the cause.
McCann, who attended St. Monica's school, urged his fellow parishioners to write, meet with, and e-mail their legislators "until the vote occurs."
More than 500 students and some parents and teachers spoke at more than 1,000 area Masses this weekend, archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell said.
Referring to the limited time until the legislature's summer break, Farrell said: "It's a very narrow window, but we believe the momentum is there."
In the last year, the archdiocese announced the merger of numerous Catholic schools. Chaput has said that without vouchers and increased EITC funding, more schools will close. With vouchers and additional EITC money, more families could afford to send children to the schools, Farrell said.
Gov. Corbett supports vouchers. The House, however, has not appeared interested in picking up the measure. "I've seen no real support on my side of the world," said State Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), a voucher opponent.
Of the Catholic campaign, he said: "They have the right to advocate for what they want." He added that he would meet this week in Philadelphia with some Catholic school students who want to discuss the issue.
Roebuck said he did not support taking money away from public schools, didn't believe vouchers were permitted under the state Constitution, and didn't see them as addressing the issue of providing a good education for all students.
At St. Monica's, however, vouchers had supporters.
"Options are good because they make everyone better," said the Rev. Joseph Kelley, parish pastor.
Joanne Zepp said she was putting two children through Catholic school.
"It's hard. We sacrifice a lot," she said.
"We're taxpayers, too," said Maria Realdine, who has children in Catholic and public schools. "We feel if they want to allocate more funding for the schools, it's a good thing."