(By Peter Noll)
June 8, 2012
Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2223)
Blessed John Paul II reminds us in his 1994 “Letter to Families” that for parents to take true responsibility for the education of their children, they must enjoy “true liberty in how their children are to be educated.”
In the current political climate, creating public policy for education initiatives supporting parental choice in education is easier said than done. But even in times such as this, hopeful people should be encouraged by reflecting on the steady progress made over the years to support true educational opportunity. One success story is child benefit programs.
Variety of services
During the last 40 years, the Minnesota Legislature has steadily enacted programs that provide direct financial benefit to children regardless of the school their parents choose to have them attend. These “child benefits” consist of textbook aid, health services, pupil transportation, guidance and counseling, and access to full special education services to qualifying children.
Many public and nonpublic school parents may not be familiar with some of these key child benefits that improve educational opportunity. The state aid actually goes to the local school district that purchases materials, equipment and services for use by the nonpublic school student. Our state constitution prohibits aid to sectarian schools.
Here are a few examples of benefits accorded to nonpublic school students:
• Government textbook aid
Government textbook aid for nonpublic schools ensures that all children will have access to up-to-date publications to assist them in their learning. During the past two legislative sessions, the statute governing this program was expanded to provide funding for certain types of electronic textbooks and hardware for individual student use. These enhancements will accord nonpublic schools the ability to procure and implement innovative curriculum programming necessary to remain competitive in the K-12 education marketplace. To be legally precise, electronic textbooks and hardware are on loan to the nonpublic school student from the local school district that owns the materials and equipment.
• Special education services
Special education services are provided through a combination of federal, state and local revenue for qualifying nonpublic school students, and ensure that appropriate learning interventions are provided to all Minnesota children who are screened for a learning disability. Since the early 1960s, children attending nonpublic schools have been accorded the full access to special education services under a provision known as shared time.
Under the shared time provision of 1981, nonpublic school special education students are permitted to participate in certain public school programs on a “shared time” basis. “Shared time pupils” means those pupils who attend public school programs for part of the regular school day and who otherwise fulfill the requirements of the state’s compulsory attendance law by attendance at a nonpublic school.
For those children with a learning disability who attend nonpublic school at their parent’s choice, a school district may provide special instruction and services at the nonpublic school building, a public school or at a neutral site. The school district shall determine the location at which to provide services on a student-by-student basis, consistent with federal law.
• Equality in school transportation
In the late 1960s, the Legislature determined that in school districts where the state provides transportation aid, it is in the public’s interest to provide equality of treatment in transporting schoolchildren regardless of whether they attend a public or private school. The public interest, in this instance, is the health, welfare and safety of all the children of Minnesota.
While interpretation of the law is occasionally a source of contention in a few communities, the student transportation system effectively delivers nonpublic and public school students safely to and from school on a daily basis.
Leading up to the November election, ask your legislative candidates their position on child-benefit programs that support parents in exercising their freedom of choice in education. Encourage them to preserve existing laws and support new ones.
Campaign season is an ideal time to remind candidates for public office that, in addition to protecting and promoting parent rights, taxpayers will continue to enjoy significant savings when parents are accorded the means and services that enable them to educate their children in a religious, private, independent or home school.
Peter Noll is the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s education director.