By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Bishop Joseph Kopacz and Diocese of Jackson School Superintendent Catherine Cook signed a letter urging Mississippi Lawmakers to expand school choice in the state by passing Senate Bill 2623. The bill made it out of the committee process, but as of the publication day for this issue, the House has not debated it.
SB 2623 would expand eligibility for the state’s existing Education Savings Accounts (ESA) to all public school students, students entering kindergarten or first grade, students in foster care, children of active duty military, and siblings of eligible students. The ESA would be funded at $6,500 for special needs students and at 95 percent of the state’s formula for all others, which comes to about $5,700.
Basically, parents who qualify would get access to an account or debit card to use for their child’s education. The bill gives preference to students with special needs. Two-thirds of the Catholic Schools in the diocese serve special needs students and stand ready to enroll more.
The letter from Bishop Kopacz and Cook states, in part, “The Catholic Church teaches that parents are the primary teachers of their children and that public support should empower their choice to send their children to schools that fit their conscience. Expanding eligibility for the ESA, while prioritizing those students with special needs and from low-income families, will allow parents a real option in choosing an education that best fits their child’s learning needs.
“The Catholic schools of Mississippi have long served the neediest students and communities, educating Catholics and non-Catholics across income-levels and racial groups. Our schools have offered a well-rounded education to Mississippians for generations, and we stand ready to give an opportunity to the families who would benefit from an expanded ESA.”
The bishop and Cook got some unexpected assistance in this effort this year thanks to a mission appeal trip the bishop took to Indianapolis. When Bishop Kopacz was preaching in Indiana he met Brittany Vessely, executive director of Catholic Education Partners, a non-profit organization whose mission is to help more families have access to Catholic education. One of the services Catholic Education Partners offers is advocacy and education in states where school choice could help the community.
The organization sent Greg Dolan to Mississippi. He delivered the letter to lawmakers, helped answer questions and visited Jackson area schools during Catholic Schools Week. He explained that the current bill is not a new program. The state already has ESAs. This bill simply expands the categories of eligibility.
“This program is in existence and functionally it wouldn’t change very much. Really, the same process would go on in that parents are given a portion of the funds used for their public education,” he explained. Dolan added that school choice programs are about empowering parents to make decisions in their children’s best interest regardless of their income or location.
“We don’t do this (support school choice) because we want Catholic schools to have higher enrollment. We do it because this is what the church has taught for at least 150 years in our modern schooling environment – that the state should support parents in choices they make for good education. I happen to think personally that more people, if they had the option, would choose Catholic schools,” said Dolan.
The letter was only part of the effort to support this issue. Students from across the diocese attended a School Choice rally at the capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 23. Wearing bright gold scarves, the students provided a backdrop for advocates to speak to lawmakers about the bill.
A group even came down from Greenwood St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis principal Jackie Lewis said she believes parents should have the right to choose the education best for their students. “My child might need something different from your child. You have to look at the specific child and the specific family and find the school that fits,” said Lewis. “Public school is not one-size-fits-all, nor is private or parochial school,” she added. The advocacy group Empower Mississippi helped organize the trip for the St. Francis students.
By Maureen Smith