Voucher-Boosting Church Leaders Drop ‘Lobby-Or-Else’ Order To Needy Parents

A plan by Roman Catholic leaders in Pennsylvania to require financially strapped parents to lobby in favor of a school voucher bill hit a snag when it was exposed in the media.

The incident began in October, when Ronald T. Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, sent a letter to the principals of local Catholic schools ordering them to mobilize parents on behalf of a voucher bill that is pending in the state legislature.

“We must be relentless in our efforts to help pass school choice this year,” wrote Bowes. “I am asking you to inform all parents that have received tuition assistance that they must contact their legislators and return the contact form attached to you in order to receive a grant next year.”

Bowes included a form asking parents to list the name of the legislator they contacted, how many times he or she was contacted and in what form (email, etc.) he or she was contacted. It also asked parents to list the lawmaker’s position on the bill.

The overture struck some people as heavy-handed, and once the story reached the media, church officials backed off.

On Nov. 16, the Pittsburgh Diocese issued a “corrective” email asserting that Bowes had “misstated long-standing diocesan policy relative to the distribution of financial aid to parents,” reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The email also said Bowes “incorrectly stated that tuition assistance grants for parents would be contingent on whether or not they had contacted their state legislators in support of school choice. This is simply not true and I would ask that you be sure to share this memo with all your parents.”

The Rev. Kris Stubna, secretary for Catholic education at the Pittsburgh diocese, said Bowes had become too enthusiastic in his push for vouchers.

“What you’re reading in [Mr. Bowes’ email] is a real desire to get parents motivated,” Stubna told the Post-Gazette. “This is the first time in a long time that the legislature has a real possibility of passing school choice, and legislators have told us in the past that they don’t hear as much as they would like from parents who support it.”

Vouchers have become a hot topic in Pennsylvania. The legislature has been debating a bill that would offer vouchers to families at or near the federal poverty level if their children attend public schools that are in the bottom 5 percent in terms of standardized test performance.

The Pennsylvania Senate has passed the measure, but the House of Representatives has yet to act on the proposal. Americans United has been working with local activists to oppose the legislation, mainly through a group called the Keystone State Education Coalition.