WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops have agreed to launch a major new lobbying effort to win government aid for families who send their children to religious schools.
"This is the last civil rights struggle," said Bishop Edward Eagan, of Bridgeport, Conn. He added that he was "outraged" that "all tax money goes to [public] schools where religion is not taught."
The "parental choice" program, approved 241-10 yesterday at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, also included a campaign to raise millions for financially strapped Catholic schools through endowments and increased donations from corporations and foundations.
"We are looking increasingly to fair treatment of our parents when it comes to government funding," said Francis B. Schulte, archbishop of New Orleans, in a session with reporters. "This affirmation by the bishops comes at a time when more and more people are looking for different options in education."
Two million dollars in seed money will be used to establish a national office that will help parents' groups push state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to authorize parental choice funding plans.
The bishops set 1992 as a deadline for setting up organizations of Catholic school parents prepared to lobby at the diocesan, state and national levels. The Catholic school system currently serves 630,000 high school and nearly 2 million elementary school students. Currently, 27 percent of Catholic children are in Catholic elementary schools, and 22 percent of high school students.
The statement did not clearly outline how "parental choice" would work, but focused instead on the general idea that legislation should provide financial assistance to "ensure parents can afford to choose the type of schooling they desire for their children."
On Tuesday, a "choice" plan that gave financial assistance to students in private schools in Milwaukee, Wis., was ruled unconstitutional on technical grounds. Critics of such plans contend that they will drain the best students out of public schools, and represent a violation of the separation of church and state.