- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

President Bush yesterday pushed the idea of federal funding to help inner-city faith-based schools, calling them “a critical national asset” that provides opportunity to children from low-income families.

“We have an interest in the health of these institutions,” Mr. Bush said at the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools.

Joining the president at the summit were government, foundation and university leaders, as well as educators from schools of various faiths, who hope to bring attention to the financial struggles of inner-city faith-based schools.

From 2000 to 2006, White House officials said, nearly 1,200 inner-city faith-based schools closed their doors, displacing about 425,000 students, many of them minorities.

Mr. Bush called for “good ideas,” including business partnerships, private philanthropy and removing state prohibitions on public funding for faith-based schools. He also called for a federal commitment.

He advocated “Pell Grants for Kids,” a $300 million proposal that would provide scholarships to about 75,000 children from low-income families, allowing them to attend schools of their choice, including faith-based schools.

Key Democrats on Capitol Hill oppose the idea.

Mr. Bush also defended the federally funded D.C. school choice program. He said the high demand by D.C. parents “says to me we ought to expand the program, not kill the program.”

The president said the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was proof that “we haven’t given up on public schools; quite the contrary.”

Marc Egan, director of federal affairs for the National School Boards Association, said it’s unfair to fund private schools with public money in an era of “limited resources.”

“We don’t believe public dollars should be funding private school tuition,” he said in a phone interview, adding that his group is working to stop funding for the D.C. school choice program.

He called No Child Left Behind “badly flawed” because it doesn’t provide enough funding for public schools to meet the tough requirements.

Among faith-based schools, Catholic institutions have been hit particularly hard. A report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that about 1,300 Catholic schools have closed since 1990, mostly in inner cities, displacing about 300,000 students. The Archdiocese of Washington is turning seven of its schools into public charter schools.

Mr. Egan said the Fordham report argued that private-school vouchers are no “panacea,” noting that such programs haven’t helped inner-city Catholic schools in Milwaukee or the District.

Karl Zinsmeister, the president’s domestic policy adviser, said inner-city faith-based schools mostly serve poor families who can’t afford the high tuition needed to meet operation costs, and that government aid, with a few narrow exceptions, is blocked.

Mr. Zinsmeister said Denmark and France fund children’s education regardless of the type of school they attend.

Joseph P. Viteritti, director of the Hunter College graduate program in urban affairs, said he is “not optimistic” about U.S. public policy shifts to expand voucher programs. He said inner-city faith-based schools will need to depend on private philanthropy.

Several speakers argued about the effectiveness of faith-based schools.

William Jeynes, a California State University professor of education, collected data that found that poor and minority students in religious-affiliated schools show better academic performance than their peers in public schools. Religious schools, he found, reduce the achievement gap between black and white students on average by 25 percent, and the gap between wealthier and poorer students by 25 percent.

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