Catholic schools celebrate National School Choice Week with Rhode Island State House rally

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PROVIDENCE — Catholic and other non-public schools across the U.S. celebrated National School Choice Week from January 21–27. In Rhode Island, students showed off their schools with special events, received visits from national speakers and school choice advocates and descended on the State House at the annual school choice rally to demand greater state support for educational options for students and their families.

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The week kicked off with an informational session for parents on Wednesday, January 24, featuring Jonathan Butcher, senior policy analyst at the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank. The session, hosted by Providence Hebrew Day School, offered parents information on how school choice policies at the state level can expand access to non-public educational options for Rhode Island families.

“My role at the Heritage Foundation is state-focused because that’s where the decision-making should be,” Butcher told Rhode Island Catholic during a tour of St. Pius V School, Providence, the following day.

Support for non-public education options varies greatly across the U.S., with some states offering vouchers or tax credits for parents who send their children to private school and other states offering no support at all. In Rhode Island, a corporate tax credit scholarship program allows businesses to receive tax credits for donating to private school scholarships for low-income students, but the program is limited to $1.5 million, a small fraction of the applications it receives. According to Butcher, the limited support for school choice in Rhode Island can be attributed to the strength of its teachers’ unions.

“What we need to be able to do is persuade them to provide quality programs for every child,” he said.

On Thursday, students from Catholic, Jewish, charter and other non-public schools filled the State House at a rally organized by Rhode Island Families for School Choice. The atmosphere was celebratory as students performed songs on the rotunda steps in matching yellow National School Choice Week scarves. Jason Botel, principal deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, addressed the crowd.

“In Washington, people see Rhode Island as a small state, but you’re speaking with a loud voice on this issue,” he said. “I think we all agree it should not be based on luck whether a child gets to go to a great school.”

Many in the school choice movement were heartened last February when President Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos, a longtime school choice advocate, as Secretary of Education. During her first year in office, DeVos prioritized scaling back federal regulations and expressing support for school choice policies at the state level.

“Every day, Secretary DeVos and I are looking for ways to clear the way so that the federal government is not in the way but is supporting what you are doing,” said Botel.

Rep. Robert Lancia (R-Cranston) also addressed the crowd to announce his sponsorship of legislation to expand the corporate tax credit scholarship program from $1.5 million to $5 million, therefore expanding the amount of potential scholarships for low-income private school students. Last year, similar legislation was held for further study after receiving a hearing in the House Finance Committee.

“If something’s important enough, we can find the resources. And so I’m calling on the General Assembly, I’m calling on the state, to make this a priority,” said Lancia.

On the second floor of the State House, students, families, teachers and administrators showed off their school pride as they distributed information about their schools to passing families and legislators. For many parents, the issues being discussed on the rotunda floor below were close to heart.

“Religious-based education is very important for my husband and I. It’s our choice,” said Erin Clark, a mother of two students at St. Raphael Academy, Pawtucket, and one student at St. Mary School, Cranston.

Clark also serves as secretary of the Rhode Island Catholic School Parent Federation and teaches at St. Mary School, where she said many students could benefit from the increased financial assistance an expanded corporate tax credit scholarship and other school choice measures could provide.

“It’s definitely a financial commitment to send children to a private school,” she said. “My family is a recipient of financial assistance. If we didn’t have that, they wouldn’t be able to have that education.”

Principal Allison Amodie of St. Teresa School, Pawtucket, told Rhode Island Catholic that many local families send their children to St. Teresa’s for middle school to better prepare them for high school. She hoped expanded financial support for non-public schools would allow the school to better serve Pawtucket’s ethnically diverse community, particularly its Latino families.

“Especially because we’re trying to make a big Latino outreach. A lot of Latino families are afraid because of the numbers, the tuition. They don’t even want to approach the school,” she said.

Father Robert Perron, pastor at St. Michael Parish, Providence, said expanded financial support would also have a significant impact on nearby Bishop McVinney School, where many students live in the surrounding low-income neighborhood.

“It really is a struggle for parents,” he said. “In South Providence, most of our kids are [eligible for] free lunch.”

Maura Legare, a parent and volunteer at Our Lady of Mercy School, East Greenwich, expressed her support for school choice policies. In addition to a daughter in eighth grade at Our Lady of Mercy School, her two sons graduated Our Lady of Mercy and went on to attend Bishop Hendricken High School, Warwick.

“We’ve been in Catholic schools for 17 years,” she said. “My husband and I are very much in favor of any support parents can receive. When it comes time to make a choice in educating our children, nothing’s more important.”