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Catholic Education

After up and downs, vouchers take hold


Victoria Pope knows a good thing when she sees it.

Never mind that her family is not Catholic. She wants her children to be taught by the Sisters of the Notre Dame at St. Francis School in the heart of her east side inner-city Cleveland neighborhood.

A member of Shiloh Church of Christ, an African-American apostolic church in Cleveland, Pope sends five of her children to St. Francis, something she wouldn’t be able to afford to do without the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, more commonly known as the school voucher program.

“They’re really concerned about the children,” Pope said. “I like the values and the morals that are reinforced there. It doesn’t matter that we’re not Catholic. You know they’re committed to the children as well as to the faith.”

The Pope family’s children are just five of the nearly 4,000 who are being educated with help from the Cleveland school voucher program this year.

Having teachers who are committed to their students was an important selling point for Pope when she began looking for an alternative to sending her children to the Cleveland public schools seven years ago.

She first signed up for school vouchers -- which pay 90 percent of her children’s tuition -- in 1996 when her son, Marvin, was in first grade. That same year, her daughter, Autumn, was in kindergarten at the local public school. The teacher said Autumn was not doing well in her class and would have to be held back and eventually tested for a learning disability. But the school said the necessary tests could not be administered for a few years -- at which point, Autumn would already be three years behind.

In her heart, Pope knew her daughter only needed a little help and attention from the teacher rather than be left to “fall through the cracks.” She turned to St. Francis.

Today, Autumn is in sixth grade at St. Francis where she earns mostly above-average grades. She has many friends and is part of an advanced class for creative writing.

“When I was at the public school, teachers wouldn’t explain the work,” she said. “Most of the time, I did it wrong. At St. Francis, the teachers care.” Her brother Marvin also remembers going to kindergarten in Cleveland public schools.

“Sometimes when I would come home from school, my mother would say, ‘What did you learn today?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know. They didn’t teach me anything,’ ” he said. “At St. Francis, every day I learn something new.”

Marvin Pope isn’t the only one who has been learning something new every day during the last seven years.

Humility of Mary Sr. Carol Anne Smith, diocesan superintendent and secretary for education, recalls that when the state introduced the school choice program into its budget in July 1995, she and the pastors and principals of the Cleveland Catholic schools weren’t sure what they were getting themselves into.

What they were sure of though was that low-income Cleveland parents needed an advocate to help their children get a quality education.

As soon as the program was implemented in the 1995-96 school year, court battles ensued. The main argument was that public money should not be used in religious schools. For advocates of the program, the issue was not about religious education but about allowing parents to use their tax money to fund the school of their choice.

An unknown place

Six years later, on June 27, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Cleveland’s voucher program. Since then, the school choice movement seems to be growing. Today, supporters for school choice in other states such as Vermont, Maine and Washington are attempting to remove state constitutional barriers to school choice programs based on the Cleveland decision.

“This was an unknown place,” Smith said. “Truly there were ups and downs. We did this because of our commitment to families, our commitment to Catholic education and the rights of parents to choose a school for their children.”

Parents, as it turned out, were eager to join the cause.

Christine Suma, a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, was one of the leaders in the grass-roots movement, Cleveland Parents for School Choice. Suma and her husband Stephen are raising 12 children, five of whom are using vouchers to attend Our Lady of Good Counsel School in the Sumas’ west side neighborhood.

Going to school at Our Lady of Good Counsel is a family tradition for the Sumas. Both Christine and Stephen attended the school as children.

“Our roots run deep,” Christine Suma said. “We know they’ll receive a quality education. That’s the way a child should be brought up.”

It wasn’t long though before Suma realized there was a larger picture than just her family. A stay-at-home mom and passionate about the issue, Suma agreed to become a liaison and representative for other poor and low-income parents wanting their children to have an opportunity at getting a quality education.

She recalls that it was particularly hard on parents and children when the case was making its way through the courts, leaving them unsure as to whether their children would be able to continue going to the schools of their choice.

“While waiting for a decision, we were on pins and needles,” Suma recalled. “I think parents today are glad to know their children are getting a good education. Parents will never let this go. They will never let this be swept under the rug.”

Despite the bitter court battle over the voucher program, Smith insists that she feels no hard feelings toward the Cleveland public school system. In fact, she said, she personally has never criticized the public schools.

To this day, Smith said she continues to maintain a friendly and professional relationship with Cleveland Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who has been a catalyst for reform in the beleaguered school system since being hired in 1998.

Taking guidance from the 1995 U.S. bishops’ conference document, “Principles for Educational Reform in the United States,” Smith said the diocese’s concern for educational reform goes beyond Catholic schools and embraces children in all schools who have the right to quality education.

“I think choice is a justice issue,” she said. “It was because of this belief that our pastors and principals choose to be pioneers in this important effort.”

Public schools improve

For the most part, the efforts toward reform have been becoming reality.

When the 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court came down last summer, Byrd-Bennett pointed out that the court based its decision on a school system that “no longer exists.”

Under her leadership, proficiency scores are improved, safety issues have been addressed and voters even passed a $335 million capital bond two years ago for improvements to dilapidated school buildings.

Last November, Clevelanders also voted to retain the mayor-appointed school board, giving a clear mandate for the district to continue supporting Byrd-Bennett’s reform efforts.

The Rev. Hilton O. Smith, chairman of the Cleveland Board of Education, acknowledged last summer that Cleveland still has a long way to go toward achieving a quality educational experience for all children but added that the city’s schools are much better than they were when the voucher program started.

Of greatest concern to public schools officials is whether or not poor students in the Cleveland school system are penalized by the voucher program.

The voucher program receives money from the aid for safety and remediation fund of the Ohio Department of Education’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid fund. Cleveland schools are also able to apply for these monies and are able to receive funding from the state’s other two funds -- all-day kindergarten and aid for classroom-size reduction.

Smith added that the voucher program -- which also helps children going to other religious and private schools in Cleveland -- has not boosted enrollment in Catholic schools nor has the program gone to “fund” Catholic schools.

When the program began in 1995, the 31 participating Catholic schools had an enrollment of roughly 11,500. This school year, enrollment was 7,518, after two of the participating schools closed. Of those students in Cleveland Catholic schools, 55 percent or 3,917 students use voucher scholarships.

As part of the program, parents apply for a scholarship where the state pays either 75 percent or 90 percent of the tuition cost based on the need of the family. Although the state program allows for a maximum of $2,250 per scholarship, the average scholarship was $1,951 while the average cost of educating a student is $2,800.

Smith said the program continues to be as important as it was seven years ago because it provides parents with educational choice and helps bring quality education to children in need. It is not about condemning the local school system, she said.

“This is not about competition,” Smith said. “This is about parental choice. How do we know it’s working? We look at our children. They have what they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Heart of the matter

Despite the positive impact on low-income students, the Cleveland voucher program is not without its challenges.

Smith said the amount of paperwork for the administrations of the schools has increased tremendously. Many of the schools take applications for voucher scholarships all year long.

Even so, Smith said the extra work is worth it.

“The marvelous dimension of this program is that it provides parents in the city of Cleveland with a choice in the education of their children,” Smith said. “The heart of the matter has been choice.”

The heart of the matter also has been about the ability of educators to meet the challenge of serving changing student populations.

At St. Francis School, for example, the student body is much different from what it was when the school was founded more than 100 years ago. Started in 1887 as a parish school serving mostly German immigrants coming to Cleveland to work in the steel mills, today the school is 97 percent African-American and 98 percent non-Catholic. Also, 76 percent of the students are on a free or reduced school lunch and are living at or below the poverty level.

At St. Francis, the voucher program has been vital for students. When the program started in 1996, they had 24 voucher students. Today, there are 155 students on vouchers of the 250 students who attend the school.

“It’s changed the mission of who we serve,” said Notre Dame Sr. Michelle Kelly, assistant principal at St. Francis. “We now serve the poor.”

Notre Dame Sr. Karen Somerville, principal, added that parents often tell them they like St. Francis because of the strong academic program, safe environment and moral teachings.

It’s in the moral teachings where the sisters have found one of their greatest challenges -- keeping their Catholic identity in a school that is mostly non-Catholic. One solution has been to incorporate other traditions into religion class. For example, when the children learn about the Catholic sacrament of baptism, they are then assigned to do a report about how their church celebrates baptism.

“We’re a Catholic school and we teach the Catholic faith with a great respect for other religious traditions,” Somerville said. “Our teaching is not an effort to convert. It’s an effort to inform. We encourage the children to attend whatever church they belong to.”

On Cleveland’s west side, Ursuline Sr. Caroline Kocur, principal at St. Vincent de Paul School, said they have seen a steady increase in the last school year in students applying for vouchers. Of the 344 students at the school, 215 are on voucher scholarships with more applying all the time. In fact, just this month, she had two more students apply.

They are also seeing a slight increase in the number of students coming to school who are not Catholic and are less prepared for school. She’s noticed that teachers often must work more closely with new students until they get “caught up” with the rest of their class.

Still, as with many of the communities of nuns who came to the Cleveland diocese to start schools and serve the underserved, sisters today say they feel that the charism of their communities calls them to reach out to the children coming to their schools now who would not be able to attend without vouchers.

“We’ve seen a lot of parents do want to have a good education for their children,” she said. “Whether they are Catholic or not, they want their children to have a good moral background.”

Expanding the program

Making sure that a good education is available to all children remains at the top of the agenda for Cleveland parents who continue to make sure the voucher program stays strong in Ohio.

Suma explains that although the Supreme Court has ensured the program’s legality, parents are concerned that the current state budget deficit could jeopardize the program.

They also are beginning to have concerns that parents who are able to send their children to Catholic elementary schools will be unable to afford to continue that child’s Catholic education in high school.

Suma said parents “have been talking” and may start a movement toward expanding the scholarship program into the high schools. For the most part, she finds that there are many kinds of people who use vouchers -- poor, low-income, working families, single-parent families.

One thing they all have in common though is the dream of a better life for their children, she said.

“It’s the poor who can’t move out of the city,” Suma said. “Education will help that child. Otherwise, the child may never get out of poverty. We need to break the cycle.

“Just because you’re a family of faith does not mean you should be penalized,” she added. “You should decide where the money is going to go. To me, it’s a civil rights issue for parents.”

For Doris Durica, a parishioner at Ascension Church whose daughter, Monica, is a seventh-grader at the school, the issue of school choice has been a long tradition in her family. Her parents were supporters of this concept back in the 1960s when she was growing up in Lorain, a city west of Cleveland.

When her daughter was three months old, Durica’s husband died, leaving her to raise her children by herself. Without the voucher scholarships, Monica would not be able to attend Ascension.

“I have always felt that parents should have a choice,” she said. “We all pay taxes and we all feel our money should go to the school we want.”

The scholarship program also has meant parents like Tina Kuntz, a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Church on Cleveland’s west side, are able to build better family lives for their children.

Kuntz recalls that when she was raising her older son as a single mother, she had to work several jobs to support them. She was working so much, she missed out on his growing up.

Today, Kuntz is married and has three daughters at St. Vincent de Paul School on voucher scholarships. She is able to be a stay-at-home mom, where she feels she can work in partnership with the teachers in educating her children.

She said the one-on-one time with her daughters who are in fifth and third grades has proven to be a successful combination with their Catholic education. They are mostly earning As and Bs on their report cards.

“We pay taxes like everyone else,” Kuntz said. “We just want our money to go to a school of our choice. I wanted the best for my children and I say a Catholic education is what’s best for them.”

Educators, too, see the voucher system as more than a financial program but as a social justice issue.

“Everyone needs a good education no matter their financial status,” said Kocur. “All parents should be able to have a choice.”

“When it was back and forth in the courts, we would think what’s going to happen? It put a tremendous strain on our parents and students,” Somerville said. “We always assured them to stay with us. We’re going to stick together.”

Nancy Erikson is the features editor for The Catholic Universe Bulletin, the newspaper of the diocese of Cleveland.

Related Web sites

Diocese of Cleveland Office of Catholic Education

Cleveland Municipal School District

Ohio Department of Education Office of School Options

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003