Rallying for tax credits, choice during National School Choice Week

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PROVIDENCE — Sandra Peterson of Cranston has seen firsthand the benefits of her two children attending Catholic school. She wants other parents to be able to send their children to the school of their choice.

“That’s why I want to help support the raising of the cap so families like me and other underserved families can make that choice,” Peterson said Jan. 24 during the Rhode Island Families for School Choice’s annual Legislative Reception at the Statehouse.

Hundreds of parents, students and staff from several Rhode Island schools gathered at the Statehouse to raise awareness of the school choice movement, with the hope that state lawmakers will also finally raise the cap on Rhode Island’s corporate scholarship tax credit program.

The cap is currently $1.5 million, which school choice advocates say has not been increased since 2013. The program was instituted in 2006.

“Each year, more and more corporations have applied for the tax credit, but more of them are being shut out of the opportunity because the cap remains so small,” said Ed Bastia, a volunteer with the Rhode Island Catholic School Parent Federation.

Bastia, who previously worked for the Diocese of Providence’s Catholic School Office, said only 14 of 164 businesses that applied for the corporate tax credit last year qualified for the program because the cap remains artificially low.

“This is supposed to be a business-friendly program,” said Bastia, who added that increasing the cap would also mean additional assistance for more families that want to send their children to Catholic or other private schools in the state.

“From my previous career, I can tell you that I know there is tremendous need, both in the Diocese of Providence and in other non-public schools that are tuition-driven,” Bastia said. “In Rhode Island, discretionary income is diminishing rather quickly. As a result of that, the need for ancillary programs to help and assist families is so prevalent.”

The afternoon rally at the statehouse coincided with National School Choice Week, which aims to shine a positive spotlight on effective education options for students, families and communities around the country.

From Jan. 20-26, more than 40,000 independently-planned events across the country were held to celebrate National School Choice Week. The event at the Rhode Island Statehouse included musical and dance performances from students who attend Saint Rose of Lima School in Warwick, Monsignor Clarke School in Wakefield and Bishop McVinney School in Providence.

Zeus Rodriguez, the president of the board of directors for Hispanics for School Choice, spoke at the rally, at one point leading a “We want school choice!” rally with students from Saint Rose of Lima School.

Rodriguez, who travels the country advocating for school choice and spoke the previous night at the Providence Hebrew Day School, later said he was looking to emphasize the “fundamental, constitutional human right” that parents have to be their children’s primary educator.

“And that means advocating municipalities to help parents educate their children,” said Rodriguez, who added that school choice has always been available to Americans who have the means to send their children to private schools or to live in communities with better public schools.

“I can tell you there is not a legislator, policy maker or staff aide here who doesn’t participate in some kind of school choice, even if it’s basically moving to the neighborhood they want to live in,” Rodriguez said.

Official Catholic teaching affirms the importance of school choice. In Paragraph 2229, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that parents have the “fundamental right” to “choose a school for them which corresponds to their own personal convictions” and that public authorities “have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and ensuring concrete conditions for its exercise.”

The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, affirms that parents, “who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children, must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.” The declaration asserted that public subsidies should be made available so that parents are truly free to choose their children’s education.

Peterson, who volunteers with the Rhode Island Catholic School Parent Federation, said her son and daughter have benefited from attending the Bishop McVinney School.

“I like the foundation the school helps to build, with the values, beliefs and morals,” Peterson said. “I think parents need to be fully involved just as the teachers are, and I get to do that. Doors are open to me. I get to ask questions. There is open communication at the school.”

For parents who think they could never afford Catholic or private education for their children, Peterson wants them to know there are programs, such as the corporate tax credit, out there that can help.

“The only downside of this is that I’m paying taxes as a worker and also paying school tuition at the same time,” she said. “That’s a bit unfair but that’s my choice.”