Bishop Andrew Cozzens, auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, joined bishops from all of Minnesota’s dioceses March 16 in St. Paul to meet with Gov. Mark Dayton and several state legislators. As the board of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the bishops spoke about a range of issues, including tuition tax credits, commercial surrogacy and prison sentencing reform. The MCC’s day on the hill is an annual event. The Catholic Spirit spoke with Bishop Cozzens at the State Office Building as the day was wrapping up. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What issues have you made a priority in speaking with legislators today?
The biggest issue I’ve been trying to speak with legislators about is including tuition in the expanded education tax credit. I was trying to help legislators on both sides of the aisle see that this is really an issue about helping poor children get out of poverty. A lot of people don’t know the incredible work that our urban schools are doing.
People hear a lot about the achievement gap in Minnesota and how bad it is, and it is one of the worst in the country — that is, the gap between students of color and minority students, and the rest of the students in what they achieve. What people don’t know is that in north Minneapolis, which is one of the most difficult neighborhoods in our state, . . . you have Ascension Catholic School. If you go to the public school in north Minneapolis, you have a 40 percent chance of graduating high school. If you go to Ascension, you have 100 percent chance of graduating from high school.
We have a product that is really helping children get out of poverty. And we’re not just helping Catholic kids. We’re helping all the kids that come through our door. If the governor would include tuition in his education tax credit, that could help stabilize these very fragile urban schools, because tax credits are for poor families, and this is about helping poor families get a good education for their children and giving them choices.
What’s been the most persuasive argument you’ve heard against your position today?
None of the arguments are persuasive, but the strongest arguments against are, No. 1, that people have the idea that there needs to be a separation between church and state, which of course we recognize. But this is not the government paying for Catholic education. This is the government giving a tax credit to parents who value an education for their children. The government doesn’t make anybody choose this. Parents can take that money and go wherever they want. But if they choose to use it in a Catholic school, they can. What they’re given then, is a choice to help get their children out of poverty.
The other argument against it is that it’s too expensive, but it’s actually cheap when you consider that we have a $900 million surplus in the state right now, and this would only cost about $23 million to the state. And it doesn’t take any money away from public schools. This is a bargain that can help deal with our achievement gap immediately, when the other fixes that are needed for our public schools are going to take a lot longer and will cost a lot more money. As one representative said to me today, $23 million is a lot cheaper than what we’re going to pay if these kids are in prison because they didn’t graduate from high school.
What other issues did you discuss with legislators?
We talked about everything from reform of sentencing guidelines for prisoners to promoting a commission to study the problem of [gestational] surrogacy and the complexities around that issue. We’re really in favor of a commission to study that. We also talked about environmental issues and, certainly, life issues. It’s one of the interesting things about being Catholic: You can walk into pretty much any senator or representative’s house and find something you can agree with them on. You can also find something that you can challenge them on, because the Gospel always challenges us. We’re not ideologues; our ideas all come from the Gospel.