By Charles J. Chaput

Political apathy leads to missed opportunities to change at least some lives for the better - especially those of the people Jesus referred to as "the least of these," our poor.

Our state and city are at a critical juncture. Philadelphia's urban life is a mix of immense possibility and energy and very serious problems. Some recent reports suggest that Philadelphia is not just the poorest big city in the country, but also the one with the highest rate of deep poverty, defined as afflicting those living on less than $6,000 per year or raising a child on less than $7,600 per year.

The lack of quality education is a common thread among people in severe poverty. And once stuck in deep poverty, it's very hard for anyone to escape due to a lack of the skills needed to secure and hold employment.

Education is a vital issue in Pennsylvania politics. The fate of many thousands of children, and to a large extent the future of our city, will be decided over the next few months and years. Philadelphia has some of the highest-performing schools in the commonwealth. Unfortunately, they're the exception.

Despite many excellent teachers and administrators, more than two-thirds of Philadelphia district schools are on the commonwealth's list of the poorest-performing schools. The children who attend these troubled schools are overwhelmingly poor and from minority backgrounds. Their chances of finding a way out of poverty as they mature are slim.

Poor parents, like parents everywhere, want their children to grow strong; to have their talents take them as far as they can go. But without a quality education, these hopes will remain unfulfilled, and another generation of deep poverty will persist.

This is painfully ironic because at the moment, thousands of seats sit empty in safe, high-quality Catholic and private schools throughout the region. Lifelines to a good education do exist to help poor families, but, as so often happens, political conflicts stand in the way.

Catholic social teaching is built on a commitment to the poor. Few things are more important to people in poverty than ensuring their children's education as a path to a better life. If the future of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania depends on an educated, productive public - and it obviously does - then providing every means to ensure young people a good education becomes a matter of social justice. Prudent lawmakers from both major parties have understood this for years. They need to feel our support in the voting booth and throughout their public service.

The point is this: Proper funding for public schools is clearly important. But experience has already shown that this can't be the only strategy because it doesn't work for many of the students who most urgently need a good education. It's therefore vital that our elected officials serve the real education needs of the poor by supporting school choice.

Currently in Harrisburg, House Bill 752 proposes to increase the commonwealth's Educational Improvement Tax Credits to $170 million and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits to $80 million. Rep. Jim Christiana (R., Beaver) is the prime sponsor. The speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), has identified this legislation as a priority. A number of Democrats and Republicans from the Philadelphia area have cosponsored the bill.

These successful tax-credit programs fund scholarship organizations that enable tens of thousands of students, including those who are most needy, to attend good schools of their choice. Catholic and other nongovernment schools benefit greatly from these programs - but only indirectly, and only because parents and students freely choose them because of their quality. In fact, many of the students in our inner-city schools who benefit from the tax-credit programs are not Catholic. Our schools welcome them as part of our Gospel commitment to the common good.

With so much at stake in this year's state budget debate, lawmakers need vigorous constituent feedback. Public support for these tax credits, and for the legislators who advance them, is essential to ensuring that these valuable programs, which benefit so many poor families, continue and grow.

Charles J. Chaput is the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia. shepherd@archphila.org