Cardinal’s Voucher Proposal Gets Cool Reception

Published October 1, 1998

Philadelphia Public Schools Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, who had threatened in March to close down the city’s schools if the state did not provide an additional $85 million to balance his proposed budget, nevertheless was unreceptive to a recent proposal that would save the school system some $130 million. The reaction by Mayor Edward G. Rendell was also decidedly cool.

In a May 26 letter to Hornbeck and Rendell, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, suggested that the city’s problem of inadequate funding and overcrowded schools could be addressed by implementing a publicly funded voucher program for city children to attend private and parochial schools.

Noting that Hornbeck had identified lack of space and financial resources as the two challenges facing the city’s school system, Bevilacqua pointed out that Catholic schools in and near Philadelphia have 20,650 spaces available as a result of “an unfortunate lack of resources on the part of many families.” Every child that leaves a Catholic school produces an additional empty seat, and also costs the public school system, which must educate the student, approximately $7,000 each year.

“However, if enough students select an alternative school, your dual problems of space and resources would be eased, if not eliminated,” the Cardinal told Rendell and Hornbeck in his May letter. “Everyone would win. The child would be in a school of his/her parents’ choice, an empty seat in a non-public school would be filled, and your problems would be addressed.”

Under Bevilacqua’s plan, the difference between the cost of private school tuition and current public school per-pupil expenditures would revert to the Philadelphia School District. With annual tuition of $2,950 at archdiocesan high schools and $700 to $1,700 at elementary schools, annual savings of $130 million would be achieved if all 20,650 seats in the Catholic school system were filled, according to archdiocese spokesperson Guy Ciarrocchi.

But while Rendell said he would study the proposal “out of respect for the cardinal,” he essentially dismissed it as a “stop-gap” measure that didn’t eliminate “long run structural problems.” Hornbeck was equally discouraging, raising concerns about constitutional issues and finances. He said that the loss of a small number of students would have little effect on the fixed costs of keeping schools open.

Undeterred, Bevilacqua two weeks later expanded his offer to include ten suburban school districts, where spending averages $8,426 per student. Reiterating his belief that vouchers could save both space and money for public schools, he noted that the archdiocese had an additional 7,000 vacancies outside Philadelphia and a total of 28,000 vacancies in the five-county region. According to Ciarrocchi, added savings of up to $59 million could be achieved if all the suburban vacancies also were filled, resulting in total savings of $189 million for the five-county area.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].