President Bush will highlight the increasing alarm over the plight of the nation's inner-city Catholic schools today with a summit at the White House.
Several New York City education leaders will be in attendance, including the general counsel of a Jewish advocacy group, David Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America; a former Democratic congressman of Queens, the Reverend Floyd Flake, and a professor of public policy, Joseph Viteritti, who directs the graduate program in urban affairs at Hunter College.
Echoing remarks he made in his State of the Union address this year, Mr. Bush said earlier this month that the summit's goal is to produce legislation to "save" not just Catholic schools but all religious or "faith-based" schools that serve inner-city children.
"The purpose of the summit is to highlight the lack of educational options facing low-income urban students," Mr. Bush said, according to a White House statement. He said the goal of the summit is "to urge there to be reasonable legislation out of Congress and practical solutions to save these schools and more importantly, to save the children."
Inner-city Catholic schools have been shutting their doors in growing numbers in the last several years. A recent report by a think tank based in Washington, D.C., the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, estimated that 1,300 inner-city Catholic schools have closed since 1990, displacing about 300,000 students.
The report said the closings are due in part to demographics: a movement by Catholics away from large cities, combined with a decline in the availability of low-wage Catholic schoolteachers, a job nuns and priests formerly filled for close to free.
Researchers suggest that competition has also crunched Catholic schools, which are fighting for both students and teachers as public school teachers' salaries rise and public school alternatives such as charter schools emerge.
Yet advocates bemoan the loss, saying Catholic and religious schools in inner cities provided a unique opportunity to poor families looking for an education outside the often-struggling public system.
At today's summit, speakers plan to suggest that the federal government move to keep these options alive by providing the schools with an easier flow of taxpayer dollars.
"I think it's time that we revise a lot of our understanding of church-state separation in terms of financing schools," the dean at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, Joseph O'Keefe, said yesterday.
Father O'Keefe, a summit panelist, said he plans to suggest the federal government help finance teacher training and that it offer debt relief to teachers at the schools who used loans to pay for college and graduate school.
Another speaker, Matthew Ladner, who is the vice president for policy research at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Ariz., said he will propose tuition tax credits as a good model. Mr. Ladner said that Arizona schools provide a perfect case study for tax credits' usefulness; though charter schools are growing in the state, so is enrollment at religious schools, he said. He said the reason, in part, is a tuition tax credit program.
An Illinois-based activist attending the summit, Phylicia Lyons, the president and chief executive officer of School Choice Illinois, said voucher programs are another way to help religious schools survive.
How much will come out of the summit is unclear.
A New York City-based political consultant, Michael Tobman, said the summit is in line with a growing sense in New York that families who send their children to religious schools are "a potent political force."
A Manhattan Institute fellow, Sol Stern, said Mr. Bush is making a "good try" but that a Democratic Congress would not support many of these measures.