Catholic school advocates lobby for ‘equity’ on Beacon Hill

BOSTON -- Standing up for Catholic school students in the state and the institutions that serve them, nearly 400 advocates gathered on Beacon Hill March 11 as part of the Parents Alliance for Catholic Education’s (PACE) Advocacy Day to push lawmakers for what they called “equity.”

The needs that private school students have for school nurses, early education programs and after-school programs are the same needs that public school students face, organizers said. But, PACE officials and advocates contend that private school students do not receive the same degree of funding and services from the state that public school students do.

As part of the 2008 Advocacy Day, Catholic school teachers, principals, parents and students promoted their state budget priorities for Fiscal Year 2009 (which begins July 1), but also encouraged lawmakers to consider all students in the state, private and public, as they dole out state funds.

Every one of the more than 230 Catholic schools in Massachusetts belongs to PACE, a statewide, non-profit, legislative advocacy organization. There are more than 68,000 students in those Catholic schools.

A formal presentation, which involved addresses by several key legislators, began in the Great Hall of Flags at the Statehouse at 10 a.m.

Some of the lawmakers who addressed the crowd included State Reps. Marie St. Fleur (D-Dorchester), Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster), Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport) and Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) as well as State Sen. Steven Panagiotakos (D-Lowell).

St. Fleur, vice-chair on the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means, specifically addressed the students in the crowd, telling them that she was the product of Catholic education and that they can now consider themselves among “the privileged few.”

She told the crowd that she is also part of a committee working to bring back character education in the public schools. “We don’t have to bring it back to Catholic schools. You cannot be in a better place to get that than where you are today,” St. Fleur told the students.

Following the more than hour-and-a-half-long gathering, the crowd broke into groups and participants knocked on lawmakers’ doors to personally lobby for their causes.

In what many on Beacon Hill are calling a tight budget year, the Catholic schools advocates lobbied for increases in the state’s school health allocation, asking for $20 million statewide (a $3.3 million increase) for the state budget line item that includes school nurses and health centers as well as funding for mental health and substance abuse services.

Another priority included seeking an increase in the Universal pre-kindergarten line item, a program Gov. Deval Patrick has been anxious to beef up. Increasing funding for after-school programs was also on the priority list of the PACE advocates.

Former PACE executive director Steve Perla was recognized at the gathering for his more than 12 years of service to the organization. Perla is currently president of PACE’s board of directors and serves as superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Worcester, a position he took in 2005 after serving for more than a decade as executive director of PACE.

However, as of July 1, he will vacate that post as well as his job at the Diocese of Worcester, since he recently accepted a position with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Perla spoke briefly to the crowd after being recognized, his voice cracking as his emotions came to the surface. “It wasn’t hard, working for you,” he said, addressing the students in the crowd and noting that keeping the needs of the students foremost in his mind over the years made working for them easy.

Berna Mann, who served as the executive director of PACE from October 2006 until March 14, and served as acting executive director for one year prior to that, was also honored by the PACE board for her service.

Last October, Mann was appointed as an associate superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Worcester. She had been splitting her time between her PACE duties and her responsibilities in Worcester. She left PACE March 14 and will now be able to devote more time to her Worcester responsibilities. Mann, who had engineered the surprise honor for Perla, said she was “very surprised” to have been honored herself.

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