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A push for vouchers

St. William Grammar School will close in June after 88 years of Catholic education, and eighth-grader Tracy Glova cites a lack of government vouchers as one reason why.

“It’s not fair that Catholic schools don’t get money,” she said. “Part of the reason that schools are closing down is that there isn’t enough financial aid. It would help a lot. Every kid should be able to have a Catholic education and get closer to God.”

Last Friday, Glova and about 150 other fifth- through eighth-graders joined the parish pastor, principal, vice principal and teachers in a demonstration outside the office of state Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-170th dist.).

The Senate passed a bill last October that would create a school voucher program in the state. The vote was 27–22. Local Democratic Sens. Tina Tartaglione, Shirley Kitchen and Mike Stack voted against the measure.

There is not enough support to pass the bill in the House of Representatives, and a vote has not been taken.

On Jan. 6, in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia blue ribbon commission report announcing school closings, it was erroneously reported that the vouchers bill “failed by only 10 votes in the House of Representatives.” The report recommended that St. William close, with students moving on to St. Cecilia in Fox Chase.

Sister Jane McFadden, the vice principal, wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the Times on Feb. 1, criticizing Rep. Kevin Boyle (D-172nd dist.) — Brendan’s younger brother — for attending a rally at St. Cecilia to preserve that school’s name after the merger, but not supporting the voucher bill.

Two days later, the students attended a Catholic Schools Week Mass, had their throats blessed on the feast of St. Blaise, then marched 10 blocks to Brendan Boyle’s office at 7215B Rising Sun Ave.

The contingent was led by Sister Jane, principal Sister Catherine Clarke and the Rev. Joseph Watson, the pastor.

The students and adults took turns shouting into a megaphone. The chants included, “Lawmakers, vote school choice,” “Save our school” and “Here we go vouchers, here we go.”

They held signs with sayings such as, “Don’t be a fool. Save our school.”

Many vehicles honked in support during the hour-long rally. The crowd spilled onto the storefronts of Boyle’s two next-door neighbors — a Baptist church and a Narcotics Anonymous office.

The demonstrators, many of whom traveled to Harrisburg a few months ago for a pro-vouchers rally, braved the cold weather on the shady side of the street before moving onto the sunny side. The pastor, principal, vice principal and parishioner Paul Corbett walked into Boyle’s office to lobby for vouchers.

“We’re here to ask him to please vote for it,” Sister Jane said.

Boyle was not in the office. He was at his other office in Somerton, meeting with officials from a Roxborough charter school and keeping other previously scheduled appointments.

Staffers at the Rising Sun Avenue office called chief of staff Dan Lodise to tell him about the demonstration, adding that the students were standing on the heavily traveled street (true), did not have signed parental permission slips (not true) and were banging on windows (not witnessed by a Times reporter and photographer).

Lodise arrived on the scene, and so did Jason Budd, the archdiocese’s deputy secretary for Catholic education.

Boyle said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the demonstration. The archdiocese was unaware of the planned gathering.

Sister Catherine said many families want to send their children to St. William, located in Lawndale.

“As soon as they hear the tuition, they say, ‘I can’t afford it,’ ” she said.

St. William was once a bustling school, but enrollment is now down below 300. The drop can be attributed to factors such as a changing neighborhood, high tuition and charter schools.

Sister Jane believes vouchers would have enabled the 100 parish kids in its CCD program to afford St. William. She noted that it is too late to save St. William, but she hopes non-public schools ultimately receive state assistance.

“This voucher would be a great help to us,” she said.

Corbett said Philadelphia Catholic schools are a better alternative than public schools, based on standardized test scores.

“We’ve got to take care of the poor. It’s a Christian obligation and a public obligation,” he said.

The bill passed by the Senate would have extended tuition vouchers to low-income families with children in the bottom 5 percent of poor-performing public schools. The annual household income would be $29,000.

Among the local schools that fit into that category are Benjamin Franklin, Creighton and Laura H. Carnellelementary schools, all within a short distance of St. William.

In the second year, vouchers would be offered to low-income students already attending private schools.

Also, it would increase the annual cap on the Educational Improvement Tax Credit from $75 million to $100 million. The cap would rise to $125 million in three years. The EITC gives tax breaks to businesses that make contributions to scholarship organizations.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest school employee union, opposes the bill, even the provision increasing funding for the popular EITC.

Brendan Boyle’s district represents a small portion of Lawndale and will likely have none of it when a redistricting bill finally becomes law. Kevin Boyle’s district doesn’t represent any of Lawndale.

Brendan Boyle attended St. Helena’s, Cardinal Dougherty and Notre Dame, and said he never got in trouble with the nuns.

The two-term lawmaker supports the EITC funding increases. Asked whether he would have voted in favor of the voucher bill that passed the Senate, he explained that he would have tried to amend it to include middle-class families.

“There aren’t many families in my district or the Northeast who would actually benefit from Senate Bill 1,” he said.

Boyle said he and colleagues will continue to look to the EITC and other initiatives to strengthen local non-public schools.

“The entire Northeast Philly delegation has been pretty supportive of our Catholic schools,” he said.


On a related note, St. William parents are planning a rally tentatively scheduled for Saturday at 5 p.m. in the school parking lot.

The parish has not appealed its closing and agreed to send the students to St. Cecilia. A committee would choose a new school name and uniform colors, and every current employee of both schools would have to apply for a job at the combined school.

St. Cecilia has appealed the decision, and parents and students staged their own rally at the school. Their main concern is that they don’t want to give up their school name, since St. Cecilia has more than double the enrollment of St. William.

Meanwhile, St. Matthew has appealed the recommendation to partner with Our Lady of Consolation. St. Matthew has more than four times the enrollment of Our Lady of Consolation.

In a Feb. 1 letter to parents and guardians, principal Sister Kathleen Touey reported on a meeting that took place the night before at Father Judge.

According to the letter, the Rev. Dennis Carbonaro, the Our Lady of Consolation pastor, and principal Stephen DiCicco support retaining the St. Matthew school name. ••

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com

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