Updated: April 24, 2008
By Erik W. Robelen | Education Week
Washington — Describing the dwindling number of faith-based schools in U.S. cities as a “crisis,” President Bush today called for efforts from government at all levels, as well as corporations and private citizens, to help change the situation.
“American inner-city, faith-based schools are closing at an alarming rate,” the president said at a one-day White House conference on the topic, “and that’s why we’ve convened this summit.”
He noted that between 2000 and 2006, nearly 1,200 such schools in American cities have shut down. “We have an interest in the health of these centers of excellence,” he said. “This is a critical national asset.“
The daylong White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools brought together a variety of academics, leaders from private schools, and advocates for religious schools.
In his State of the Union address in January, Mr. Bush noted the decline of such schools in urban areas, and first announced his intention to convene the conference.
The event followed Pope Benedict XVI’s April 15-20 visit to the United States. As part of that trip, the Roman Catholic pontiff addressed education leaders at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, where he urged steps to ensure the long-term sustainability of U.S. parochial schools.
At the April 24 conference, Mr. Bush promoted his recent “Pell Grants for Kids” proposal, which he unveiled in his State of the Union address. The plan would provide $300 million to award grants on a competitive basis to states, school districts, cities, and nonprofit organizations to create scholarship programs for low-income students in schools that have missed their achievement targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and in high schools in which graduation rates are lower than 60 percent.
President Bush also trumpeted the voucher program for the District of Columbia, which has provided federally funded tuition vouchers for private schooling to students from low-income families since 2004. The president said he would work with Congress not only to reauthorize the voucher program, “but hopefully expand it.”
Meanwhile, he urged states to remove so-called Blaine Amendments, which are clauses in state constitutions that restrict public funds from flowing to religious schools. And he highlighted other examples he finds encouraging, such as Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, which provides state tax credits to businesses that donate to organizations that provide scholarships or work for “educational improvement.”
Mr. Bush also highlighted recent efforts in Memphis, Tenn., with $15 million of seed money from private donors, to help launch the Jubilee Schools initiative to reopen closed Roman Catholic parochial schools. He said that more than 80 percent of the students in the 10 Jubilee Schools are non-Catholic.
He said further efforts are needed “at the federal level, the state and local level, the corporate level, and the citizen level.”
He urged the need for “innovative ways to advance education for all.” Noting that children displaced by closures of inner-city religious schools need to find new schools, Mr. Bush said such closures impose “an added burden on inner-city public schools that are struggling.”