Expanding opportunities for Catholic students marks PACE 2005 agenda

BOSTON — The Parents Alliance for Catholic Education (PACE) has lead the fight on Beacon Hill for more than a decade to expand parental choice in education and ensure that Catholic school students get their fair share of federal and state entitlements. This year, the organization’s budget and legislative agenda will focus on the key themes of expanding school health, early education and care, after-school aid and equity in the Adams Scholarship program for Catholic school students across the commonwealth.

Now in its 11th year, PACE has increased state budget support in the areas of special education, school nursing, early education, transportation services and after-school programs for Catholic school students and teachers from $1.5 million in 1994 to what now totals to over $30 million annually.

"PACE has had an incredibly successful first decade, but there is still much to be accomplished for our students," said Steve Perla, executive director of PACE.

A critical component to PACE’s success is the support seen by legislators at the Annual Catholic Schools Advocacy Day — to be held this year on March 15 at the Statehouse.

"Now that we have successfully engaged with elected officials and have a 'place at the table,' PACE is in a position to really advance parental choice and educational equity in ways not conceivable when we first opened our doors in 1994," Mr. Perla added.

Three main issues on the PACE advocacy agenda are early education and care, school health and the Adams Scholarship program.

Early education and care

A 2004 initiative by the state legislature to offer publicly funded, universal early education for 3-, 4- and 5-year-old students over the next decade holds much promise for parents who want to give their preschool-age children the advantage of a Catholic school education but cannot presently afford the cost. Perla was named to the Early Education and Care Advisory Committee charged with developing recommendations on how to structure this new department and its work. The Department of Early Education and Care would coordinate, streamline and universalize, using public funds, a mixed system of early education programs and services, which includes Catholic schools. PACE seeks to include after-school programming and funding in this new department. The organization says it will continue to advocate the inclusion of Catholic schools in these programs.

School health

Since fiscal year 2004, school health funding in the state has been cut nearly 50 percent — from $25.1 million to $14 million. Within the School Health Services budget line item, the Department of Public Health has reduced funding for the Essential School Health Services Program (ESHSP) from $16 million to just $9 million, impacting public, non-public and Catholic schools. The Massachusetts School Nursing Collaborative, of which PACE is a partner, has asked the legislature to restore $4 million of this funding to ensure that thousands of school children do not lose basic school nursing services.

Adams Scholarship equity

The John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program, available for the first time to 2005 high-school graduates, provides a tuition waiver for eight semesters at Massachusetts state universities, colleges and community colleges. To qualify, students in the 11th grade must have taken the high-school English language arts and mathematics MCAS tests during the standard spring grade 10 MCAS testing period. Because Catholic school students do not take the MCAS, presently they are not eligible for the scholarship. PACE and the Bureau of Jewish Education have asked the Legislature to adopt a provision in the fiscal year 2006 state budget that enables grade 10 non-public school students who reside in Massachusetts to voluntarily take the MCAS exam at no cost so that they may be eligible for the program. PACE believes Catholic and other non-public school students should not be precluded from eligibility in this statewide scholarship program.

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