Parents choose. Kids win.

School choice a legislative priority for the archdiocese in 2017

Aaron Lambert
Denver, Colorado January 19, 2017: Sign for School Choice Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic

The Office of Catholic Schools, the Colorado Catholic Conference and a diverse group of state-wide allies are teaming up to make school choice an important issue this legislative session, which opened Jan. 11.

Superintendent Kevin Kijewski and Colorado Catholic Conference executive director Jenny Kraska are pushing for Colorado legislators to consider implementing a scholarship tax credit program within the state, which would grant a tax credit to individuals and/or businesses who make donations to scholarship-granting organizations. Those organizations can then use the donations to create scholarships that can be given to help pay for the cost of tuition at private schools or out-of-district public schools that would otherwise be too expensive for families.

The overarching goal for passing such a law is to promote school choice, or as Kijewski and Kraska prefer to call it, parental choice.

“We’ve been making a concerted effort to get away from using the term ‘school choice’ to the term ‘parental choice,’ because really, it’s about parents being able to make the decisions for their kids,” Kraska said.

Implementing a scholarship tax credit program could be beneficial not only for Catholic schools, but for private and charter schools as well. Ultimately, it empowers parents to be, as the Catholic Church teaches, the primary educators and teachers of their children.

“It’s not just about Catholic schools; it’s about giving kids and parents choices,” Kijewski told the Denver Catholic.

The concept of school choice is a hot button issue in education, made even more so with the nomination of known school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as education secretary. School choice, in its simplest form, can be defined as programs that offer students and their families alternatives to public schools. Every taxpayer funds public schools with the taxes they pay; school choice allows for these public funds to follow students the schools or services that best meet their needs, whether that be public schools, private schools, charter schools, or homeschooling.

“It’s not just about Catholic schools; it’s about giving kids and parents choices.”

While the current federal ruling supports private school choice through public funding–a precedent set by the 2002 Supreme Court case Zelman V. Harris–the main obstacle to school choice lies within the states. In Colorado’s case, there are two Blaine Amendments in the state constitution that strictly prohibit any public funds from being allocated to private school entities. These provisions date back to the late 1800s and are named for Congressman James G. Blaine, who fueled the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the time by lobbying for these provisions to be passed in each of the states after a federal proposal was shot down.

Thirty-eight of the 50 states in the U.S. still have some sort of Blaine amendment in their state constitutions.

“[Blaine amendments] provide a huge impediment for [public] money flowing to private schools,” Kraska said.

There are a few different options when it comes to school choice, including the popular voucher system and the more recent Education Savings Accounts. For Colorado, however, Kijewski and Kraska suggest the best option is to implement a scholarship tax credit program, which have also been implemented in 17 other states.

Giving parents control

Brittany Corona is a national school choice advocate and former director of state policy for EdChoice. She is starting a National Catholic education reform nonprofit organization, the vision for which is based on the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis. It will work primarily to unify the Catholic voice in education reform and advocate directly within the school choice network.

According to Gravissimum Educationis, parents are the primary teachers of their children and should be free to choose which school their child goes to in conformity with their conscience. To that end, Corona said that school choice works in conjunction with the Church’s teachings regarding education.

“Allowing for public funds, or in the case of tax credit scholarships, charitable donations to scholarship granting organizations, to be directed toward families who direct those dollars towards school choice or education options in choice, is consistent with Church teaching,” Corona explained.

There are limitations to scholarship tax credits, however. Corona said that because they’re funded entirely by charitable donations, there is a cap on the money that students are able to access. According to Corona, the ideal method for school choice would be to “allow parents to direct the dollars that are allotted for their children to an education option of choice.” Education Savings Accounts are the best option to systematically change the system for school choice, she said.

Still, she said that in the case of Colorado, scholarship tax credits are the best way to go.

If parents are able to choose what school to send their kids to, you’re going to have a healthy amount of competition among all the different schools out there, including Catholic schools. Everyone needs to raise the bar, and school choice is the incentive to do so.”

“Scholarship tax credits differ from other school choice options because they’re completely made up of charitable contributions, so it’s not coming out of the state pot of public funding at all,” she said.

Though results vary on a state-by-state basis, statistics show that attendance rates at private schools increase when parents are given choices of which schools to send their kids to. The state of Florida implemented a scholarship tax credit program in 2001, and recent statistics published by the Florida Department of Education show a steady increase in private school enrollment rates from 2011-2016.

Competition also plays a factor when parents have a choice, which can increase the overall quality of education a school offers.

“If parents are able to choose what school to send their kids to, you’re going to have a healthy amount of competition among all the different schools out there, including Catholic schools,” Kijewski said. “Everyone needs to raise the bar, and school choice is the incentive to do so.

“This is about empowering people, not only to go to Catholic school, but to go to whatever school they want. It’s about empowering people to make choices for their kids.”

COMING UP: Blessed Frassati to serve as patron of new school

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A new Catholic school featuring Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati in its namesake is coming to the Archdiocese of Denver.

Frassati Catholic Academy is a new Catholic school in Thornton slated to open in Fall 2017. Named after Blessed Frassati himself, Frassati Academy will be firmly Catholic in its approach to education and provide the highest-caliber educational experience to its students. The school will adhere to the classical model of education, which has time and time again proven to be extremely beneficial and effective in terms of academic success.

“Frassati Catholic Academy, with its classical approach to education, is a wonderful addition to our 35 existing Catholic elementary schools,” said Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. “Given the growing Catholic population around Thornton, we desire to offer a new opportunity to help form your children both spiritually and academically.”

Frassati Academy is located in Thornton at 133rd Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, a location that is bursting with growth and is home to a large Catholic presence. The location was determined to be appropriate after studying population and demographic data.

The purchase of Frassati Catholic Academy was announced at Masses in the surrounding parishes over the weekend. It is the first new archdiocesan school to open since Our Lady of Loreto in 2012, and is also the first regional school in the archdiocese, which seeks to serve those students in the area who do not have a school attached their parish.

The building itself, which was formerly a charter school, is in “tip-top shape,” said Kevin Kijewski, Superintendent of Denver Catholic Schools. The building was constructed in 2003 with an addition made in 2008, and it remains in gre¬at condition.

“Part of our new vision for Catholic schools in the archdiocese is to offer new academic configurations and specialties that are appealing to parents,” Kijewski said. “Frassati Academy helps to fulfill a need and desire in the northern Denver suburbs.”

‘Man of the Eight Beatitudes’

Archbishop Aquila named the school himself, saying that Blessed Frassati is an excellent role model for young people.

“Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati serves as a great example for young people today, especially here on the Front Range,” Archbishop Aquila said. “He is known as the man of the beatitudes, a title which speaks to living out the faith with authentic joy. We believe he is an excellent patron for this new school.”

Born April 6, 1901, in Turin, Italy, Blessed Frassati was an astute student and a fierce defender of the Catholic faith. At the age of 17, he began studying to become a mining engineer to “serve Christ better among the miners,” he once told a friend, and devoted much his spare time to serving the sick, needy, orphans and World War I veterans. In 1919, he became involved in political and social activist groups that promoted Catholic social teaching, and played a crucial role in the first convention of Pax Romana, an organization that called for unification among Catholic students throughout the world for the purpose of working together for universal peace.

At times, Blessed Frassati was known for physically defending the faith, getting into the occasional scuffle with anticlerical Communists and Fascists. Even so, his heart was in the right place. He stood for social justice and took every opportunity he got to lead others to Holy Mass, to read Scripture, and to pray the rosary.

Blessed Frassati contracted poliomyelitis at age 24, and died on July 4, 1925. At his funeral, the streets were filled with the poor and suffering whom he served during his life, a show of overwhelming support for a man Pope John Paul II dubbed “Man of the Eight Beatitudes” in 1977 while attending an exhibit about Blessed Frassati’s life. Of him, the Holy Father said, “Behold the man of the eight beatitudes who bears in himself the grace of the Gospel, the Good News, the joy of salvation offered to us by Christ…” On May 20, 1990, Pope John Paul II beatified Pier Giorgio Frassati.

The classical model

The classical model of education, as its name suggests, dates back to as early as the 6th century. It strives to lead students to discover knowledge and truth that is ordered, coherent, integrated and is rooted in the wisdom of the past, particularly in Western civilization such as Greece and Rome.

The three primary pillars of classical education, sometimes called the trivium, are grammar, logic and rhetoric. Furthermore, the study of Latin, art and music is integral to classical education. In the early grades, exploration and memorization are encouraged, and as students progress to higher grades, they transition from memorizing to engaging in learning activities that stress synthesizing ideas across academic subjects.

The Office of Catholic Schools has been consulting with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education in the implementation of the classical model at Frassati Academy. The institute, headed by Andrew Seeley, Ph.D., works to promote the best and deepest kinds of Catholic education in Catholic schools and colleges, a big part of which is the classical model of education.

“If you read through the Holy See’s teachings on Catholic schools, there are five benchmarks for what Catholic schools should look like, and I think Catholic classical education meets those benchmarks in abundant and wonderful ways,” Seeley said. “Classical education prepares students for 21st century leadership. One of the key components is trying to teach students how to learn anything that they need to know, and because we teach them to learn and inspire in them a desire to learn, they’re going to be very effective at adapting to situations that change all the time.”

Coupling a classical education with a Catholic foundation has proven to be extremely successful, and one local school has exemplified this. Our Lady of Lourdes school in Denver was one of three schools featured in a recent article published by the Catholic World Report highlighting two key elements that appear to increase enrollment in Catholic schools: “embracing and proclaiming a Catholic identity, and switching to a classical curriculum.” In the midst of dropping attendance, Our Lady of Lourdes Principal Rosemary Anderson switched the school to a classical model of education beginning in 2011, and since then, their enrollment has increased drastically, jumping from 90 students in 2011 to 175 as of January 2016.

Proudly Catholic

As a Catholic school in the classical tradition, Mass and prayer will serve as the foundation of Frassati Academy’s curriculum. Religious formation will be fostered among the students with a weekly Mass in addition to support by parish priests from around the local area.

Priests will also play a crucial role in the operations of the school. Frassati Academy will be governed by a board that includes local pastors of the region, who will ensure the school remains on mission.

“This regional governance will include pastors from parishes in the local area,” said Father Randy Dollins, vicar general for the Archdiocese of Denver. “While the archdiocese will own the school, the pastors will help to ensure effective leadership and finances for many years to come.”

Denise Campbell is the newly-hired director of curriculum and instruction for the Office of Catholic Schools, but she is also overseeing Frassati Academy as its interim director.

“Frassati Academy will offer the highest quality Catholic education possible,” Campbell said. “I am very excited to be a part of this growth and innovation in the Archdiocese of Denver.”

Registration for Frassati Academy opens during Catholic Schools Week, which begins January 30, 2017.

Visit gofrassati.org to sign up for email updates.