Rally for vouchers

Representative Kevin Boyle speaks to a crowd of nearly 500 girls, stating that it is not fair to crush a child’s dreams of attendeing the right school for them due to high tuition. He argues that school vouchers and expanding Educational Improvement Tax Credit will help solve this issue, Friday, June 1, 2012, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

The front steps of St. Hubert High School have gotten quite a workout this year.

Back on Jan. 6, students sobbed on their way out the door after learning that an Archdiocese of Philadelphia blue ribbon commission recommended that the school close because of declining enrollment and a budget deficit.

In the days that followed, the St. Hubert community rallied on the steps to raise money to aid an appeal of the blue ribbon commission’s findings. Some $1.3 million was collected.

And on Feb. 24, pandemonium broke loose on the steps as the girls celebrated the news that Archbishop Charles J. Chaput had spared St. Hubert and three other high schools on the chopping block because of generous pledges from philanthropists.

Though the doors at St. Hubert will reopen in September for the 72nd year, the girls have another battle on their hands. They want the state to pass a bill that would give vouchers to parents to make tuition more affordable at non-public schools.

“What do we want? School choice. When do we want it? Now,” the girls chanted at dismissal last Friday afternoon.

Sister Mary E. Smith, the school president, and principal Regina Craig joined staff at the rally on the steps.

Among those in attendance were Kathryn Ott Lovell, chairwoman of the school’s board of directors; state Rep. Kevin Boyle; Rita Schwartz, a former St. Hubert teacher and president of the Association of Catholic Teachers Local 1776; officials from the archdiocese; and an aide to state Rep. John Taylor.

Vouchers have been proposed in Pennsylvania for years but have never become law.

In fact, Boyle remembers being a fourth-grader at St. Helena in 1989 when the school held a rally for vouchers.

Gov. Tom Ridge supported vouchers but couldn’t get the votes in the legislature to make them law. Vouchers weren’t an issue during the two terms of Gov. Ed Rendell, who opposed them. Gov. Tom Corbett campaigned on a pro-vouchers platform, and some movement has been made on the issue.

The Senate passed a vouchers bill last October by a vote of 27–22. Local Sens. Tina Tartaglione, Shirley Kitchen and Mike Stack voted against the measure, which has not been considered by the House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 1 would have offered vouchers to children attending the bottom 5 percent of poor-performing public schools and living in households with a maximum annual income of $29,000. Local schools that would have qualified were Frankford and Fels high schools, Harding Middle School and Franklin, Creighton, Carnell, Stearne and H.R. Edmunds elementary schools.

In the second year, vouchers would go to low-income students already in private schools.

Funding for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit — which gives tax breaks to businesses that donate to scholarship organizations — would rise annually from $75 million to $125 million over three years. Those organizations forward the money to non-public schools, which use the funds to offer tuition assistance to needy families.

Now, a new bill appears to be quietly gaining momentum in the House. Republican Reps. Mike Vereb of Montgomery County and Jim Christiana of Beaver County are said to be pushing a measure that would expand the scope of vouchers to children in the bottom 10 percent of poor-performing public schools and a sliding income scale that would reach up to $70,000 a year.

An EITC expansion would be included.

The details have not been finalized, but voucher supporters are excited.

“This is legislation to ensure the success of all future Bambies,” said Lovell, a 1992 St. Hubert graduate.

Boyle (D-172nd dist.), a House freshman who had expressed opposition to vouchers during his primary campaign in 2010, is a convert.

“I will be voting yes,” he said of the forthcoming bill.

Boyle, who also indicated he would have voted for Senate Bill 1 had it reached the House, described the expanded bill as being “on the cusp” of passage. He’s one of a small number of Democrats in favor of the bill. There is some Republican opposition, and proponents have not gotten commitments from the minimum 102 members needed for passage.

Still, support has grown. Some lawmakers across the state viewed Senate Bill 1 as a measure that would benefit only Philadelphia.

In his first run two years ago, Boyle’s top theme was neighborhood preservation. He believes St. Hubert, Father Judge and Archbishop Ryan high schools, along with Catholic elementary schools, are pillars of the community. He views thriving Catholic schools as critical to the city’s economy.

Boyle, whose wife teaches English at a charter school in Germantown, favors the broader income limits because families in neighborhoods such as Tacony, Mayfair and Holmesburg would qualify.

A Cardinal Dougherty High School and La Salle University graduate, Boyle wants parents to be able to send their kids to a private school if they believe the neighborhood public school isn’t up to par. He grew up in Olney.

“The public schools were not an option,” he said.

Lovell urged parents to call, e-mail and write letters to their legislators and to schedule an appointment to visit them.

In her view, too many public schools have issues with truancy, dropouts and low scores on standardized reading and math tests.

“These schools are failing our children,” she said.

The St. Hubert students carried signs that read, “Give My Mom a Break” and “Raise EITC,” and sung the alma mater.

Claire Ann Alminde, a junior who’ll serve as student council president next year, thanked her parents for sacrificing to send her and her two brothers to St. Jerome and to a Catholic high school. Christopher Alminde graduated from Father Judge, and Patrick Alminde is a freshman at the school.

Paul Alminde is a detective in the police department’s East Division, and Claire Alminde is a nurse at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. Their daughter wants all children to have the opportunity she has.

“I believe I am who I am because of this school,” she said. ••