Catholic schools to close for rally; Dallas Diocese giving students, teachers a day to lobby for vouchers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Dallas Catholic school students will get a day off Feb. 7 – and not for an early Ash Wednesday.

Schools will shut down so students and teachers can go to Austin for a rally in favor of school vouchers, which use public dollars to send students to private and religious schools. Other Catholic schools around the state are joining the effort.

The move is a sign that new leaders in the Catholic Church – which would probably be the biggest beneficiary of any voucher program – plan to be much more active in lobbying the Legislature than in previous years.

“There are a couple new archbishops,” said Charles LeBlanc, the Dallas Diocese’s director of schools. “We have a new director of the Texas Catholic Conference. And I’m impressed with the energy.”

Vouchers have been a controversial topic for the last several legislative sessions.

Supporters say they allow children to escape failing public schools and give parents choices. Opponents say they take money away from public schools that need it and threaten the separation of church and state.

“The vast majority of Texas parents, Catholic or otherwise, send their children to public schools and want those public schools to be supported by the Legislature, not robbed by a voucher scheme,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that opposes vouchers.

The Catholic Church is by far the largest sponsor of Texas private schools, with more than 80,000 students and 280 campuses statewide. Many are concentrated in poor urban areas – which are also home to many of the low-performing public schools that could be affected by a voucher pilot program.

Many Dallas Catholic-school parents learned of the rally Tuesday, in the form of e-mails from school officials. Christ the King School, for example, told parents the school “apologizes for this inconvenience, but our Dallas Diocese has just mandated Feb. 7 to be a student holiday.”

“We want to support parental choice in education, and we are taking the day off to do that,” Dr. LeBlanc said.

Other dioceses

Other Texas dioceses were still determining how to respond to the rally. Donald Miller, superintendent of schools for the Fort Worth Diocese, said that the diocese would support the rally but that officials are “still working on the scale of our appearance.”

“We want to support the rally and make our presence known and advocate for our families,” he said. The diocese has not yet decided whether to close school Feb. 7.

Austin Catholic schools are also considering closing, according to their superintendent, Ned Vanders, who said the decision could be left up to individual campuses. Austin Catholic schools have about 325 empty seats this school year that could be filled by voucher students, he said.

“I think there may be some legislators that might be leaning toward this, or open to it, and we want to let them know how we feel,” he said.

Representatives of other Catholic dioceses around the state did not return phone calls seeking their plans for the rally.

“There’s never been a loud voice in the past from the bishops on the issue,” said Robert Aguirre, a voucher advocate and one of the rally’s organizers. “But I think that’s changing.”

Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, said she is not surprised to see Catholic leadership becoming more active on the issue.

“In years past, although the stance has always been strong for school choice, leaders and bishops have urged parents to step out into the public arena and be advocates for the issue,” Dr. Ristau said. “I think now, the leaders and bishops are taking that step themselves.”

Ms. Miller, the voucher opponent, said the results of November’s legislative elections would make it harder for a voucher program to be passed in the next session, which begins next month.

But Mr. Aguirre, a San Antonio businessman and chairman of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, said he sees growing support for vouchers. Catholic schools are growing in Texas, driven primarily by the influx of Hispanics into the state. The voucher battle expected in the next session could be an indicator of those Hispanics’ political reach.

“It’s an issue of social justice for low-income people,” he said.

He said he sent letters to each of the state’s Catholic bishops, informing them about the rally and inviting them to join in the effort. Mr. Aguirre, himself a Catholic, said he was surprised to hear that the Dallas Diocese was canceling classes for the rally – “surprised and delighted.”

Critics of plan

But the decision to shut down doesn’t sit well with all Catholics. Nicole LeBlanc, a lay leader in a Dallas Catholic parish, said she was “fuming” when she heard about the Dallas Diocese’s decision.

“I just don’t think that schools should be closed and remove a day of education just to support the church’s political agenda,” said Ms. LeBlanc, who is not related to Dr. LeBlanc. She said the Catholic Church takes many stances on political issues – against the death penalty, against abortion, in favor of services to the poor – but doesn’t shut down school for those issues.

“We don’t cancel school for Roe v. Wade Day in January – why should we cancel for this?” said Ms. LeBlanc, who tutors at a neighborhood public school and opposes vouchers. “I think the bottom line here is money.”

Dr. Ristau said that she could understand that point of view but that the Austin rally would give students “a wonderful opportunity to see civics in action.”