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NCEA president: Trump could present ‘huge opportunity’ for Catholic parents

February 9, 2017
Valerie Schmalz

The Trump administration’s apparent endorsement of parental school choice during the campaign could present a “huge opportunity” for Catholic parents, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association said in San Francisco Feb. 3.

“This could be a huge opportunity for parents wanting to choose the right school for their children,” Thomas Burnford, NCEA president and chief executive officer, told those gathered at the archdiocese’s annual high school teachers’ consortium.

“Whatever your politics, the current administration proclaims some understanding or belief in support of school choice,” Burnford said in his talk at Archbishop Riordan High School.

In making his remarks, Burnford did not mention President Donald Trump directly, saying in later comments he did not want to politicize the subject of parental choice.

The National Catholic Educational Association represents Catholic schools in the U.S.

Since 2006, 20 percent of Catholic schools have closed, and while there are bright spots, and innovations that are working such as the Cristo Rey work study high schools, the situation is serious, Burnford said. There has been a 27 percent decline in Catholic school enrollment since 2000, Burnford said. About 1.9 million of the 55 million school-aged children in the U.S. attend Catholic schools.

Twenty-nine states have some form of parental school choice although the programs affect a relatively small percentage of children in total, he said. In areas with parental choice programs, Catholic school enrollment tends to be stable or on the rise, Burnford said.

“The church has been very clear” that it is “parents who have the primary and inalienable right to educate their children”, but to do so, they “must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools. Unfortunately, true liberty in their choice of schools is not the case in most of the U.S.,” Burnford said.

“That choice is only real when the funding that comes from everybody is made available for everybody. The money follows the student to the school of their choice,” Burnford said. “That is just, fair, and the norm for much or the rest of the planet. It is not the case in this country.”

“Tuition remains an obstacle for many parents to enroll their children in our schools,” Burnford said, while noting that marketing, especially person-to-person contact, is key. NCEA has commissioned a study of why people do and don’t choose Catholic schools that will be completed in May, he said.

About 60 percent of school-aged Catholic children are Latino, while just 3 percent are in Catholic schools, Burnford said. That is “clearly a funding issue,” he said.

As a candidate, President Donald Trump endorsed parental choice both in an October letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference and on his campaign website where he promised to “establish the national goal of providing school choice to every one of the 11 million school-aged children living in poverty.” His nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has a long track record of advocating for school choice.

The U.S. bishops advocate tax credit and voucher programs that allow public education funding to follow the child to private, parochial or public schools and have made it one of their priorities for the current 115th Congress. Their position is explained in “Parental Choice in K-12 Education: A Matter of Social Justice,” at usccb.org.

Burnford closed his talk with an emphasis on his belief in the important mission of Catholic schools to the church. “Catholic schools need a growth mindset in this day and age. We have it. We have it because we have hope. Hope is a theological virtue that is given to us and it comes from an internal relationship with the Lord. The solutions to the challenges are not just our work,” Burnford said. “It is a matter of faith and knowing that God will deliver.”

“People with hope live differently, “he said. “It is contagious and it leads to growth.”


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