Controversy Over School Voucher Program in Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Archdiocese and new Fighting Chance PA PAC, which shares a name with spring’s grassroots campaign launched by the Pennsylvania Catholic Coalition, are both pressing for legislation in Harrisburg which would save many struggling Catholic schools by pumping millions of dollars of scholarship money into them.

Fighting Chance PA PAC has already given out nearly a quarter million dollars to pro-voucher state lawmakers and other political committees in Harrisburg, including $25,000 to Rep. Jim Christiana who a month later introduced a $75 million bill to support scholarships for Catholic schools.

Philly.com writer Will Bunch says the focused lobbying is a sign that new Archbishop Charles Caput is proving to be one of the most politically savvy Catholic leaders. Chaput wrote an Inquirer op-ed in support of Christiana’s bill shortly after it was introduced; titled ‘Pass voucher bill now – or else’:

“Without new scholarship tax credits and school vouchers to relieve costs, more archdiocesan schools will close soon, and more of the financial burden of educating young people will fall on the public,” wrote Chaput. He called Christiana’s proposal “the best bill” and argued that “this program would not take money away from public schools”

Bunch argues that this statement conflicts with the fact that public schools in Pennsylvania would take a $75 million hit at the same time that Harrisburg is considering axing kindergarten classes because it is already broke and unable to fund them.

Although an Archdiocese spokesman has disavowed any affiliation with the Fighting Chance PA PAC, the joint aims and harmonious actions indicate to many that the relationship is obvious:

“This is an end run of the whole process,” said Lawrence Feinberg, a Haverford Township school-board member who heads the Keystone State Education Coalition, which staunchly opposes vouchers and tax breaks for nonpublic-school scholarships.

A tentative new state budget included the $75 million tax-credit expansion and opponents fear that enough Philadelphia Democrats will have received campaign money from pro-voucher groups to ensure its final passage.

Meanwhile, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a letter last week to a key lawmaker, blasted the measure as not only “bad for students, bad for taxpayers, and [one that] harms religious liberty” but a violation of the state constitutional ban on public funds for sectarian schools.

Campaign records show that more than 38% of cash raised by Christiana’s campaign so far this year has come from three pro-voucher groups, although Christiana strongly denies the money had any influence on his advocacy of the new tax credits.