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La. Bishops demand government aid but no new regulations. (People & Events).

Members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Louisiana are gearing up for a big push for parochial school voucher subsidies.

Church officials have been holding meetings across the state designed to encourage parents to demand parochial school aid. The meetings, sponsored by Citizens for Educational Freedom, a statewide voucher front group, are designed to increase parental pressure on lawmakers as the legislature comes into session this month.

"We are at an historic moment," Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans told the Clarion Herald, the Catholic diocesan newspaper in New Orleans. "Parental choice in education is an idea whose time has come. It's a true moment of grace for the church and public education to join in the common work of teaching. We are stronger together than when we stand alone, or worse, at odds with one another."

Hughes said he expects a Louisiana bill modeled on the Ohio voucher plan to be introduced. (Ohio's voucher law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling in June.)

Hughes also made it clear that the church wants no government control over its schools, even while it expects tax aid.

"We would not be a part of this if this were to affect the Catholic identity of our schools," he said.

The issue of regulation of private schools may prove to be contentious. Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster (R) has said he will push for a voucher plan that lets students at failing public schools attend private schools as well as other public schools at taxpayer expense. But Foster wants private schools taking part in the scheme to agree to meet state education standards and publicize their students' achievement.

"The idea is to have similar levels of accountability for both systems," Foster's chief of staff, Andy Kopplin, told the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Catholic school officials say they will not accept those conditions. The archdiocese wants tax-funded vouchers worth $3,000 with no strings attached. The Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, told the Advocate that Catholic schools will not follow the state's standards for judging the quality of schools and will not publicize individual schools' test scores.

"We have no intention of creating competition among our schools" by allowing public comparison of their test scores, Maestri said.

In other news about parochial school aid:

* Maryland's new Republican governor has agreed to continue a $5 million textbook program that benefits largely Roman Catholic schools. Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. included the funds in his first budget. The aid was first extended by Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening. The money comes from the state's tobacco settlement fund. It allots $60 per private school pupil for the purchase of non-religious texts.

* Texas has become the newest battleground over vouchers. That state, which now has a Republican governor and GOP control of both chambers of the legislature, is expected to consider several private school aid bills this session. One leading proposal would create a voucher pilot program in the state's six largest school districts.

The plan, sponsored by Rep. Ron Wilson, a Houston Democrat, has its critics. At Northside School District in San Antonio, Superintendent John Folks said it is unfair to give tax aid to private schools without requiring them to meet all of the mandates public schools must meet, such as requiring students to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test.

"Let's require the private schools to give the TAKS test and let's see how they do," Folks told the San Antonio Express-News.
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Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1U7LA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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