Barriers of bigotry are blocking greater access to Catholic schools

Catholic schools have long helped make the American Dream a reality by giving poor and working class kids the chance to get a quality education. For many, a Catholic education was the key to a better future, serving as the basis for state leaders in law, government, and business.

But despite this success, government officials don’t seem to have the same level of appreciation for Catholic education as they once did. And today Catholic education faces difficult challenges.

Catholic schools hold all students to high academic standards. They also offer a place of discipline and stability that is a refuge for children coming from homes and neighborhoods that are often chaotic and sometimes violent. At the core is a values-rich education that teaches all students the importance of serving society and helping those most in need.

The academic success of Catholic schools in Massachusetts is clear. On SATs, Archdiocese of Boston schools top national and even state averages, even though Massachusetts has the nation’s highest performing public schools. Archdiocesan schools have very high graduation rates and a 96 percent college matriculation rate, with nearly all headed to four-year colleges.

Catholic schools achieve all this despite spending far less than public schools do. On a per-student basis, Catholic schools in Massachusetts generally spend about $6,000 annually. The per-pupil cost in the Boston Public Schools is approximately $14,000. Still, Catholic schools are being forced to close for financial reasons, even though polls show parents love them.

In the Bay State, this limited access to Catholic education is exacerbated by the so-called Know-Nothing amendments to the state’s constitution. The amendments, which prohibit state funds from being directed to sectarian schools, are a relic of the anti-Irish Catholic bigotry that arose in the mid-19th century. Today, they make it harder for thousands of needy students to get a quality parochial school education.

One way to potentially enhance educational choice despite the amendments is through education tax credits. Under these programs, funds for religious and private school tuition come from credits granted to corporations and/or individuals who choose to donate. Non-profit organizations – not the state – award the money. The funds are directed to religious and private schools as a result of the independent choices of parents, not government.

We need look no farther than Rhode Island to find a successful tax credit program that helps more than 500 needy students attend religious and private schools. Florida has a larger program. During the 2006-07 school year, just under 900 religious and private schools educated 14,502 low-income students using tax credit scholarships.

Every day, I see the sacrifices urban parents make to send their kids to Catholic schools because they know these schools offer a lifeline that gives non-affluent children a chance.

This St. Patrick’s Day, let’s redouble our efforts to eliminate the barriers of bigotry that block Massachusetts families from access to Catholic education. Through Catholic schooling the commonwealth’s children will succeed if state policymakers have the courage to provide them the proven educational options for success.

Raymond L. Flynn is a former mayor of Boston, U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, and the author of “The Accidental Pope” and “John Paul II, A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man.”