The Catholic Commentator

As a professional educator who has spent her entire career as a teaching, school administrator and district leader for Catholic schools, Dr. Melanie Verges has a unique appreciation for Citizens for Educational Choice.

CEC, originally founded by Archbishop Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans as Citizens for Educational Freedom, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year as a lobbying arm to the legislature.

“The organization  has been on the frontline on a number of issues that have directly impacted our schools and our students. CEC was instrumental in setting a firm foundation for the state scholarship program when it grew into a statewide initiative in 2012 and continues to serve non-public education by advocating for legislation that serves the common good of our state.”

Along with the scholarship program, which provides the opportunity for lower income students to attend Catholic schools, CEC has also been instrumental in a number of other issues, including school textbooks for Catholic students, busing and child nutrition.

“(CEC) has touched the lives of every Catholic student for the past 50 years and continues to do so today,” said Verges, who will often consult with CEC executive director Rob Tasman and occasionally meet with legislators. “As educators, as parents of Catholic school students, we are so grateful for their contributions. They provide an extremely valuable service.”

CEC’s origins date to November 1967 with Archbishop Hannan’s initiative to convince the Louisiana Legislature of the importance of supporting Catholic and non-public schools with “a fair share” of taxpayer dollars. Since its founding, CEF and now CEC have educated lawmakers on a fundamental financial reality: If Catholic schools did not exist, the state would have to assume the full economic burden of educating all of its students, a fiscal impossibility.

“It was Archbishop Hannan’s vision,” said Tasman, also the executive director of Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops. “He knew that since so many people had a voice in the public forum, why shouldn’t the voice of the church – and non-public schools – be heard as well?”

During the past 50 years, at the urging of CEF and CEC, legislators have approved approximately $500 million in state appropriations for non-public schools in areas such as required services (reimbursements for reports required by the state), bus transportation and salary supplements for school food service workers.

The state also offers non-public schools grants for educational programs through the Louisiana Quality Education Support Fund (8g), established through a major offshore oil and gas revenue settlement.

Last year, the state appropriated to non-public schools about $8 million for required services and $7 million for the school lunch salary supplements. But Tasman said that outlay was down from just a few years ago when the state provided $15 million for required services alone.

 “We need to keep a keen eye on programs like required services and the school lunch salary supplements,” Tasman said. “This is money given to non-public schools that helps those schools operate at a very high level, and that transcends into how it impacts the student, whether it’s in student life or in the administration of school programs.

“There’s no doubt non-public schools have done that very well and usually with far less red tape and resources than are required by public schools.”

The first president of CEF was T.M. Barker of Lockport. Emile Comar, then  managing editor of the Clarion Herald in New Orleans, served as executive director and acting vice president. In January 1968, Kirby Ducote made a transition from the public relations office of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to serve with Comar as associate director and later executive director of CEF.

At the time CEF was founded, approximately 150,000 children attended non-public elementary and secondary schools in Louisiana, and the vast majority – 130,000 – were enrolled in Catholic schools. If the state had to educate all those children, it would have had to spend an additional $62.5 million in operating costs alone, not counting the millions of dollars the non-public schools had invested in school buildings, land and movable property.

Comar said at the time: “On the one hand, parents with students in private schools are being asked to pay higher tuition, and on the other they are being taxed at higher levels to pay for public schools, which their children do not attend but which are nonetheless essential to the preservation of America’s cherished public educational system.”

Comar called it “a practical impasse.”

Tasman said Citizens for Educational Freedom was transformed into Citizens for Educational Choice in 2007 to reflect the growing national sentiment for using “tax justice” to give parents more options for the education of their children.

“We were trying to mirror the national organizations that were committed to the notion of school choice,” Tasman said, adding that many non-Catholic organizations across the state have an interest in school choice.

Tasman said the Catholic conferences of most states have an educational arm to promote issues concerning Catholic schools. Louisiana is different – the CEC is a distinct entity – because it pre-dated the LCCB.

He said it is easy to make the case to legislators that Catholic schools are working because the lawmakers can see the end results.

“Private schools are providing an incredible service to the state in terms of educating its children at a very high capacity, not only just forming them academically but also forming them to be very successful human beings and active citizens who participate in the economy of the state and the culture of the state as well,” Tasman recently said in an interview with The Catholic Commentator. 

(Peter Finney of the Clarion Herald contributed to this report.)