Catholic schools in KC diocese seek Missouri tuition aid

02/01/2012 1:38 AM

05/16/2014 6:03 PM

Catholic schools in Kansas City, combating their own trend in declining enrollment, want legislative help to improve their ability to draw students from the Kansas City Public Schools.

Families that want to leave schools in the unaccredited public school district should be able to get some tuition relief through state support to attend private schools, said Daniel Peters, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

The diocese schools have room for at least 1,000 more students, Peters said today. And he believes many would come but for concerns about the costs of tuition.

Peters said the diocese is throwing its support behind state Sen. Jane Cunningham’s expansive education bill — SB 706 — which includes provisions that would provide state income tax credits to people who contribute to organizations that provide scholarships to private schools.

The bill also provides for dissolving the Kansas City school district and partitioning it to neighboring districts.

Attempts at carving out public funds to support private schools have repeatedly failed in the legislature in recent years, but Peters believes heightened concern around Kansas City Public Schools has started a “groundswell” that may give the measure momentum.

“Everywhere I go,” Peters said, “I am asked, ‘How is the church going to help the children?’ ”

The provisions for supporting private schools, as well as expanding the opportunities for public charter schools, are embedded in a bill that is being called a “Turner fix,” referring to a Missouri Supreme Court ruling on law allowing Kansas City Public Schools students to transfer to neighboring districts.

The law is tied up in court and has alarmed communities in and around Kansas City and St. Louis for its potential to bankrupt the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts, and for the lack of control it allows receiving districts in managing the number of students who might transfer.

Legislators who have been pushing support for private and charter schools, plus other changes in education such as eliminating teacher tenure, see a chance to press those issues in return for supporting some limitations on the transfer law.

The cost of operating Catholic schools in the diocese averages around $5,500 per student in elementary schools and more than $9,000 in its high schools. The tuition that schools charge varies, Peters said, ranging from less than $100 to $3,400 in elementary schools and from $6,200 to $8,100 at its high schools.

Tuition has risen over the years as Catholic schools have relied less on the parish’s own religious faculty to teach in its schools and have been competitively hiring school teachers and principals. Technology costs also rise continually.

Since 2007, enrollment in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph schools has slipped from 13,706 to 11,832 in 2012.The number of schools, including early childhood centers, has fallen from 52 to 42.

The diocese recently underwent a major strategic planning process to reassert what it believes is the high value of Catholic education and also create a more sustainable and uniform structure for financing the schools.

Peters said the diocese also is encouraging support of efforts to pass a resolution to seek repeal of the “Blaine Amendment” in the Missouri Constitution that blocks any state funds from going to religious institutions. If the resolution were to pass, the issue would then go to Missouri voters to decide.

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