Forty years ago, there were nine Catholic schools in the city of Hartford — eight elementary schools and one high school, South Catholic. These schools enrolled more than 6,000 students. They provided a quality education — sound academic programs, an emphasis on character formation and the development of moral and social values. They were a cohesive social force, helping to keep neighborhoods and the community together. They saved the city enormous financial costs.
Over the years, these schools educated thousands of children of diverse backgrounds — ethnic, social and racial — who went on to become good citizens, responsible parents, active community members and civic leaders. The schools enrolled many children from middle- and low-income families. In several cases, they were more integrated than neighboring public schools. The students also included children of different faiths because the schools provided the kind of education many parents wanted for their children.
The schools succeeded. They made a tremendous contribution to the children themselves, to their parents, to Hartford and indeed to the wider society.
But over time, financial pressures grew and, out of necessity, tuitions increased. Despite having the church at the parish and diocesan level pour millions of dollars into support of these urban schools, many could not hold on. The families they served could not pay the tuition that would have been needed. One by one many of the schools closed. The scene was repeated in many other Connecticut cities and towns.
Today, there are only two Catholic schools left in Hartford — St. Augustine and Sts. Cyril and Methodius — with a total of 334 students. Both are striving mightily to maintain themselves but are facing financial difficulties.
Despite the value of Catholic schools — the educational and moral force they provide — parental rights and their priority in education continue to be largely ignored as legislators and civic leaders continue to reject constitutional forms of public assistance to nonpublic school students and their parents. Such assistance would, on a statewide basis, more equitably support parental choice.
Among those possible means of assistance are textbook loans, already used in some municipalities; tax credits, adopted years ago in Minnesota and other states; and vouchers, forms of which are in use in Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and other areas of the country.
As the debate about the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit and the desperate search for other forms of school choice continue, the city has seen a powerful influence for good education, integration and choice fall by the wayside. And this has been happening, not just in Hartford, but in other towns across the state. More than 30 other Catholic elementary schools have closed in the past 30 years in the Archdiocese of Hartford (Hartford, New Haven and Litchfield counties). One has to ask:
• Are parents' rights being fully respected?
• Are the cities and towns being more effectively served?
• Are educational quality and choice enhanced?
• Are the children better off?
We need not, ought not, continue on this path. The priority of parental rights in education, so powerfully affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court more than 80 years ago, should be given more effective recognition in public policy. An educational resource of proven value ought not be ignored.
Action now could achieve a more just and equitable approach in Connecticut. It could also prevent the loss of other good schools — independent and church-related — and the enormous contributions they make to the well-being of our communities and our state.
The Rev. James G. Fanelli was the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Hartford from 1974 to 1989.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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