School Choice is a Bipartisan Issue08 May

School choice is often characterized as a conservative cause.  Yet, this is not the case.  Both Republicans and Democrats have recognized the value of empowering parents to choose the best educational environment for their children.  Members of both politicaID-10069170l parties understand that the current system is unjust because access to a quality education is often determined based on a family’s income or ZIP Code.

The “mother of school choice” was a black Democrat named Polly Williams.  She was the driving force behind the first modern school choice program in the United States passed in 1989.  Since that time, 14 Republican controlled states have implemented school choice programs and the following Democratic governors have presided over the passage of school choice legislation:

States Governor Number of Bills Signed Year Bill Signed
Arizona Janet Napolitano 6 bills 2006, 2007, 2008
Iowa Tom Vilsack 1 bill 2006
Iowa Chet Culver 2 bills 2007, 2009
North Carolina Beverly Perdue 1 bill 2011
Oklahoma Brad Henry 1 bill 2010
Pennsylvania Ed Rendell 3 bills 2006, 2007, 2008
Wisconsin Jim Doyle 1 bill 2006

The school choice movement still enjoys a great deal of bipartisan support across the nation.  Governor Andrew Cuomo has championed one of the largest school choice proposals in the country.  Senator Rand Paul has made school choice a major part of his presidential platform.  There are few politicians that are farther apart on the political spectrum than Senator Paul and Governor Cuomo.  Yet, both are in agreement that all parents deserve a real choice when it comes to their children’s education.

This spirit of bipartisanship is also present in Kentucky.  Representatives Tommy Thompson (D) and David Floyd (R) sponsored House Bill 384 during the 2015 session of the General Assembly.  If passed, House Bill 384 would create a tax credit program which would incentivize donations to tuition assistance organizations.  This would increase the overall amount of tuition assistance available to Kentucky families.

In 2016, Kentucky will have a new governor who will need to find common ground between the parties.  School choice legislation provides an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together in a divided government.   The parties should follow the lead of Representatives Thompson and Floyd by passing legislation like House Bill 384.  In doing so, Kentucky would join a national, bipartisan movement seeking to give every child the education they deserve.


A Catholic Perspective on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law31 Mar

Picture of CatechismThis past week Indiana adopted a state-level version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  This law imposes a higher standard of review when the state or a local government passes laws that interfere with the free exercise of religion.  However, the law has unfairly been characterized as legislation that would authorize, or even encourage, unjust discrimination against homosexuals.

Before discussing Indiana’s RFRA law, it is important to briefly discuss the history behind the legislation.  In 1993, Congress passed (with a unanimous vote in the House and 97-3 in the Senate) and President Clinton signed the federal RFRA.  The law was enacted in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision which lowered the standard under which religious liberty cases were reviewed.  The law was originally intended to apply to state actions as well as federal actions.  Yet, the portion of the law that applied to state actions was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court because it exceeded Congress’ authority.

In effect, this meant that actions by the federal government were held to a higher standard than actions taken by state governments.  This created a problem since laws passed by state governments are far more likely to impact the daily lives of citizens.  To address this problem, states began to pass their own versions of the RFRA law.  In fact, President Obama voted in favor of Illinois’ version of RFRA in 1998 when he was a state senator.

RFRA laws have been utilized by a variety of groups seeking protection from government interference with their religious beliefs.  The federal RFRA law was passed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Native Americans who used peyote as part of their religion.  Some examples of cases that followed include a Native American’s use of eagle feathers, the beard length of an incarcerated Muslim, and an Orthodox Jewish prisoner’s request that his prison provide kosher food options.  One of the most recent cases was Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., which involved an effort by the federal government to force Hobby Lobby to provide abortifacient insurance coverage to its employees.

In some ways, it is surprising that the debate in Indiana has focused on the potential for unjust discrimination against homosexuals.  The opponents of RFRA have been unable to cite a single instance in which said laws were used to facilitate discrimination against homosexuals.  If RFRA was simply an effort to facilitate such discrimination, there would be some evidence at this time.  RFRA laws have been in existence since the early 1990’s and over 19 states have adopted versions of the law.  Another 13 states have RFRA like protections provided by state court decisions.  Thus, a total of 31 states have heightened religious freedom protections similar to Indiana’s RFRA.  Close to home, Kentucky adopted its RFRA law in 2013.  To date, there have been no reports of mass discrimination arising from Kentucky’s RFRA law.

Therefore, the question is how RFRA laws, once supported by President Obama and President Clinton, have become so controversial.  Part of the answer is the proliferation of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity laws (“SOGI”).  These laws elevate sexual orientation and gender identity to the status of being a protected class akin to race and sex.  SOGI laws prohibit discrimination in facilities or accommodations open to the public.  Some states have adopted statewide SOGI laws while in other instances local governments have adopted them.  For example, Lexington and Louisville have passed SOGI laws.

A fact that is barely mentioned in the current debate is that Indiana does not have a statewide SOGI law.  As a result, in most of the state, individuals and businesses could in theory refuse to serve homosexual customers without fear of government action.  Thus, Indiana’s RFRA law does not impact the treatment of homosexuals one way or the other in most of the state.  Once again, there is no evidence that the citizens of Indiana are inclined to engage in unjust discrimination despite the fact that there is no government law preventing them from doing so.

The issue of concern for many is what happens when a RFRA law collides with local SOGI laws.  Would a RFRA law allow a business owner to refuse service to a homosexual customer?  Under what circumstances would such discrimination be tolerated?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “[homosexuals] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and “[e]very sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”  Kentucky’s Bishops have specifically reaffirmed the fundamental principle that each and every person is equal in dignity and possesses a sacred nature, being created in the image and likeness of God.  This dignity is possessed by all persons by virtue of their existence and is not diminished by one’s personal characteristics, choices, preferences, or actions.

On the other hand, the Church has expressed concerns regarding an inadequate distinction between sexual inclination and behavior in many of the SOGI laws which seek to address discrimination against homosexuals.  In some instances, efforts to combat unjust discrimination against homosexuals have given rise to others forms of injustice.  For example; SOGI laws have been used by some to punish individuals and businesses who do not wish to participate in wedding ceremonies, often times religious in nature, which violate their deeply held beliefs.

RFRA laws help to strike a balance between protecting religious liberty and addressing claims of unjust discrimination.  They ensure that that the government has a “compelling interest” before forcing someone to violate their religious beliefs.  In effect, this means that the government cannot sanction laws and actions which punish those who hold views that others simply find objectionable.  Instead, the state or local government must prove that it is advancing an important government interest.  Not only is this approach in accord with the Catholic view of religious liberty, but it also reflects a deeply American value.  Thomas Jefferson summed this principle up well by writing that “[n]o provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”

This should be a value that all Americans cherish.  It is striking that most of the debates seem to take for granted that those individuals living a homosexual lifestyle do not value religious liberty.  Yet, over 50% of gays and lesbians describe themselves as being religiously affiliated.  Hence, it should not be insinuated that only those adhering to a traditional view of sexuality value the liberty to act according to their deeply held beliefs.

Therefore, those following the debate in Indiana should be aware that the laws at issue need to be viewed in a larger context.  Indiana’s RFRA was not created out of a desire to discriminate.  Instead, it reflects a continuing effort in our country to strike a balance which allows all citizens to practice their faith without unnecessary government interference.


Catholic Schools: A Community Institution25 Mar

Lost Community

Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America

The fact that Catholic education produces solid academic results is well documented.  The benefits include the following:

  • 98% of low income, minority children graduate from Catholic high schools, compared to only 66% of all students in public schools;
  • Hispanic and African American Students who attend Catholic schools are 2.5 times more likely to graduate college;
  • 81% of students who graduate from Catholic schools attend college, compared to 44% of students in public schools;
  • Catholic school students are also more tolerant of diverse views, more likely to vote, more likely to be civically engaged, and earn higher wages than their public school peers.

New research suggests that it is not just the students who benefit from Catholic schools.  A new book titled Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America, by Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Garnett, highlights the importance of Catholic schools as community institutions.

Specifically, the book assesses the negative effects associated with Catholic school closures.  The authors demonstrate statistically that after a Catholic school closes, there is a decrease in “social capital.”  In other words, the web of connections and trust between neighbors is diminished.  Ultimately this leads to more crime, making the neighborhood less appealing to families.

Catholic schools are good community institutions for the same reason that they are good educational institutions.  The members of the school community facilitate an environment of trust and high expectations.  This positive environment reaches beyond the schoolhouse and benefits the local community.

Unfortunately, we are facing a crisis in Catholic education.  In the past two decades, approximately 2,000 schools have closed nationally.  Many of these schools served as community anchors for generations, providing a quality education to Catholic and non-Catholic children alike.  These community institutions will not easily be replaced.

Yet, there is hope.  The closures are often related to decreased enrollment.  This does not reflect a lack in interest amongst families.  Many families, especially in poor urban communities, simply cannot afford the cost of tuition despite generous subsidies provided by the Church.  In order to address this problem, states from across the country are adopting tax credit legislation in hopes of increasing the availability of tuition assistance.  This has made a Catholic education more affordable, particularly for low income families living in urban areas.  As a result, some states have successfully turned the tide.

This book is particularly relevant to Kentucky.  Kentucky is at a crossroads as its Catholic schools struggle to ensure that a quality education is available to all families.  Our state legislators can turn the tide of school closures by passing tax credit legislation like House Bill 384.  The bill would ensure that this important institution does not vanish within our urban communities.




Legislative Update: House Bill 38419 Mar

Capitol DomeThe Kentucky General Assembly is winding up its 2015 session, and much remains unfinished.  This includes House Bill 384, a bill which would create a tuition assistance tax credit program.  Many of you responded to a message that the Catholic Conference of Kentucky (“CCK”) circulated during February.  The message asked for families to contact their legislators and ask for their support.

House Bill 384 did not receive a hearing in the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, and no action is expected this year.  This was not unexpected since 2015 is a non-budget year.  In most instances, the General Assembly only considers matters related to the budget, including taxation, during sessions on even numbered years.

Despite these procedural obstacles, your voices were heard and a great deal of progress was made towards passing this important legislation.  The focus of this session was to lay the groundwork for 2016.  A major component of this strategy was educating legislators about the bill and determining where they stand.

On several occasions, legislators had heard from their constituents prior to meeting with CCK’s staff about House Bill 384.  As a result, the vast majority of the legislators that CCK met with expressed support for the bill and pledged to assist CCK in its efforts during the 2016 session.  The importance of your voice in this matter cannot be understated.

The 2016 campaign for tax credit legislation will be the largest push for this bill to date.  CCK will be partnering with likeminded groups in order to make the case to legislators that Kentucky families need this legislation.  Expect big things to happen in 2016.

In the meantime, it is very important that we keep the conversation alive.  Please continue to ask your legislators to support this legislation during the interim.  If your legislator is a supporter, be sure to thank them.  House Bill 384’s sponsors, Representatives Tommy Thompson and David Floyd, were very appreciative of the outpouring of support that they received within their districts.  Standing behind our supporters is just as important as gaining new ones.

If you need assistance with regard to reaching out to your state legislators, please feel free to contact CCK’s office.  We are also very interested in hearing about your conversations with legislators.  If your legislator has taken a position on the bill, please let us know.

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HB 384 – Putting Families First13 Feb

David Floyd

Representative David Floyd

Tommy Thompson

Representative Tommy Thompson

House Bill 384 sponsored by Rep. Tommy Thompson (D) and Rep. David Floyd (R) is a unique opportunity to help parents exercise their right to choose the educational environment most appropriate for their children. It will also benefit all elementary and high school students in Kentucky. Without your help, it will receive little attention during this session of the General Assembly.  Please ask your representative to co-sponsor the bill by calling 1.800.372.7181 and leaving a message for him or her.

When passed, individuals and businesses could contribute money to either a 501(c)3 tuition assistance organization or to the Commonwealth School Improvement Fund and receive a tax credit to offset their state tax liability. Tuition assistance organizations would then provide financial assistance to children attending nonpublic schools.  Contributions to the Commonwealth School Improvement Fund would be used to support innovation within the public school system. The legislation caps the tax credits at $50 million allowing for a total of $100 million being available to help students; $70 million would flow to support public education; and the remaining $30 million would be available for tuition assistance for students attending nonpublic schools.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2229) teaches the following:

  • Parents have the right to choose a school for their children which corresponds to their own personal convictions;
  • This right is fundamental; and
  • Public authorities have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and ensuring concrete conditions for its exercise.

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (#72) our U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have written:

Government, through such means as tax credits and publicly funded scholarships, should help provide resources for parents, especially those of modest means, to exercise this basic right without discrimination.

The passage of HB 384 would help lower and middle income families afford nonpublic school tuition for their children. Thus, this bill provides parents with the opportunity to choose an educational setting that is most appropriate for their children regardless of their income or ZIP code.

The public school system would also benefit from the additional funds generated through contributions to the Commonwealth School Improvement Fund.  Further, studies have shown that states with similar legislation have saved millions of dollars as it relates to public education.  For example; Florida saved approximately $39 million by virtue of its tax credit program.  The savings generated by a tax credit program in Kentucky could be reinvested in the public school system.

Enacting HB 384 promotes the common good by giving all students an opportunity for a better educational experience. Please contact your member of the Kentucky House of Representatives and encourage support for HB 384.

Photo: Kentucky Legislative Research Commission


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