Principals in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh were told last month that parents who received tuition assistance had to lobby state legislators to pass a school voucher bill -- and document it -- or lose their funding.
After Ronald T. Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development, emailed those instructions to the principals Oct. 20, the diocese sent out its own directive Nov. 16, saying Mr. Bowes had "misstated long-standing diocesan policy relative to the distribution of financial aid to parents."
The mixed signals come at a time when supporters of a tuition voucher program are working to get a bill passed by the end of the year.
Mr. Bowes' email began by saying "we must be relentless in our efforts to help pass school choice this year. I am asking you to inform parents that have received tuition assistance that they must contact their legislators and return the contact form attached to you in order to receive a grant next year. I then want you to return these contact forms to me. This way we can insure that a solid effort is being carried out by our diocese."
The attached forms ask for the date, the name of the parent and the school, the name of the state senator and state representative, the number of times contacted and how, the legislator's position and "if oppose, why?"
After he learned of the memo from principals earlier this month, the Rev. Kris Stubna, secretary for Catholic eduction in the diocese, said he began an investigation and, along with Robert L. Paserba, superintendent of Catholic schools, sent out a "corrective" email a few days later.
That email noted that Mr. Bowes "incorrectly stated that tuition assistance grants for parents would be contingent on whether or not they had contacted their state legislators in support of school choice. This is simply not true and I would ask that you be sure to share this memo with all your parents."
The diocese is not "requiring recipients of [tuition assistance] funding to provide documentation of their contacts with the state offices," Father Stubna's letter said, noting that if parents "wish to voluntarily inform you that such contacts have been made, it would help in [monitoring] our collective efforts and contacts being made throughout our six-county area."
Mr. Bowes couldn't be reached for comment.
Father Stubna said he believes the principals contacted him with questions because "it was not consistent with long-standing diocesan policy." While the diocese strongly supports "school choice, it is not an issue of doctrine," he said.
Most principals, he said, didn't distribute the memo to parents.
"We never really heard from parents," he said, except for one phone call from a parent who had been informed about the memo by a principal "and who was extremely angry."
"As a motivational factor, [the memo] went way beyond our policy," he said. And many principals, "knowing Dr. Bowes' personality" -- which he described as "enthusiastic" -- either ignored the email or contacted the diocese for clarification.
The diocese oversees about 22,000 students in 100 schools in six counties, mostly in Allegheny County.
A monthly newsletter for November -- an official school bulletin from the central office -- sent out on Oct. 20, the same day as Mr. Bowes' email, contained an exhortation to support the vouchers bill in Harrisburg, but there was no lobbying requirement for parents currently receiving aid.
"What you're reading in [Mr. Bowes' email] is a real desire to get parents motivated," he said. "This is the first time in a long time that the Legislature has a real possibility of passing school choice, and legislators have told us in the past that they don't hear as much as they would like from parents who support it."
The bill in question, Senate Bill 1, passed that chamber last month and is before the House. It is doubtful, however, that it will come up for a vote before the end of the year, when Gov. Tom Corbett, a supporter of school vouchers, has said he'd like it passed.
Currently, the diocese receives tuition-assistance funding from two sources: the Scholastic Opportunity Scholarships fund and the Bishop's Education Fund. The SOS fund -- which distributed $2.9 million in grants to more than 3,800 students in the 2010-11 school year, comes from the Education Improvement Tax Credit, which allows businesses to provide scholarship money to private parochial schools in exchange for tax credits. The Bishop's Education Fund distributed nearly $600,000 for the 2010-11 school year to more than 1,800 students. Tuition assistance is based solely on financial need.
"No other criteria are applied ... whether or not a parent contacts their state legislators has no bearing whatsoever on their eligibility to receive a grant," Father Stubna said.
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.