Catholic schools closures will hurt the neediest

Children's Scholarship Fund Baltimore is Baltimore's only need based, non-denominational program that gives lower income families tuition assistance for their children to attend the elementary school of their choice. Totally dependant on private donations, we are helping over 420 students attend 63 private and parochial schools in and around Baltimore. Students are chosen by lottery, so we are helping a few children from every neighborhood in the city.

This school year 43 percent of our families have chosen to send their children to a Catholic school. The parents do not choose Catholic schools for religious reasons. The overwhelming majority of the families are non-Catholic. They choose Catholic schools because they provide a quality education for their children, they are in their neighborhood and they are affordable.

Next year nine of the Catholic schools our parents have chosen will be closed, and 75 of our students will need to find a new school. The policy of Children's Scholarship Fund Baltimore is to have the scholarships follow the students, so we will continue to provide tuition assistance. However, the choices for these families will decrease, the affordability will no doubt be more challenging and the transportation may now become an issue. City families with the least resources will have more barriers and less opportunity to secure the educational future they want for their children. This effects not only the children and their families but also their communities and ultimately the city.

Quality non-public elementary schools raise the bar for all educators to provide successful results. City neighborhoods benefit by families remaining in the community rather than searching for better educational opportunities elsewhere. In turn, public elementary education will benefit from healthy, diverse neighborhoods, and local public high schools benefit from the students who may return to the public school system after graduating from the eighth grade successfully prepared for the ninth.

In the years since the first offering, Children's Scholarship Fund Baltimore has awarded over $8 million in scholarships to about 1,500 Baltimore city children. However we continue to maintain a pre-qualified waiting list of over 2,500 parents representing as many or more children anxiously awaiting future scholarships. No doubt many of these families would choose a Catholic school. This might help fill in the capacity gap in some of the closing schools and reverse the system's enrollment declines. However, the only way for this to happen would be for Baltimore individual and corporate philanthropy to reverse their direction and increase rather than decrease their support during these difficult economic times. As with other investments, now is the time to invest in the children of Baltimore if we want a healthy payoff in the future.

Paul Ellis, Baltimore

The writer is executive director of the Children's Scholarship Fund Baltimore.

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