There is a plethora of good news which I would like to share with you today. First, yesterday Florida’s First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee ruled against the Florida Teachers Union and in favor of low-income and at-risk children whose parents can exercise “freedom of choice” in picking a private school for their children. The appeals court, like the trial court below it, found that the union did not have standing to bring the legal action since monies for this program come from private businesses directly to a foundation. In other words, those businesses get a tax credit and the children get a better chance at a future. The program is called “Step Up Florida”.
Eighty per cent of the students receiving this scholarship assistance are in private schools primarily serving African American and Hispanic children. While historically this is not an initiative of anyone to populate Catholic elementary and secondary schools, there are a small percentage of children in our schools who gain access only because of the law. Qualification and need is assessed by the private foundation which awards the scholarship assistance to the students.
A great deal of time, energy and money has gone into defending this program against the legal assault of the state teachers union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The presence of the latter as plaintiffs baffles the black pastors of the state as well as the principals of largely black schools where the children are getting a better chance at success than they would elsewhere. The Florida Association of School Boards were initially plaintiffs but they subsequently withdrew.
Then there are the public school teachers whose union is spending a king’s ransom to overturn the law even though as both the trial and appeals court pointed out, there is absolutely no guarantee that the money now being used in the form of a tax credit would, if the law were to be declared unconstitutional, be directed to public education. I believe in teachers unions. I even started one in Columbus, Ohio in 1967. Florida’s union is rated as one of the most inefficient and unsuccessful unions among the fifty state teacher associations. On this law, they are out to prove their reputation correct. Drop the suit, teachers, and continue to enjoy the support of many for millage increases and other ways of assisting your school districts in raising standards and retaining good teachers.
Today word from Pope Francis brought the news that one of the more gifted bishops in the United States would be going to Rome to take a lead position in the curia as first head of a new department merging the Pontifical Councils for the Laity, Youth, Family and Life. Bishop Kevin Farrell will be leaving the Diocese of Dallas which he has shepherded for ten years to assume this position and thus become the highest ranking American in the Roman Curia. I admired Bishop Farrell from my perch as General Secretary of the USCC/NCCB and he was a gifted priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. We also served on the USCCB Finance Council together where I witnessed his wisdom and compassion. He writes, thinks, administers and dreams like Pope Francis and that is all good!
School is open in the diocese once again and I am happy to indicate that enrollment is slightly up which is far better than being slightly down. Among the high schools, there are significant increases at Tampa Catholic (its highest enrollment in my twenty plus years here), Clearwater Central Catholic and Bishop McLaughlin (also its highest enrollment since opening). While some of the elementary schools are down slightly, enough of them are showing enrollment increases to give a bishop temporary heart relief. Soon our Christian Formation programs will resume in the parishes of the diocese and I hope there will be more young people involved there as well.
Finally, in the category of “if you build it, they will come”, last week with a number of other people I broke ground for a new Catholic residence hall adjacent to the Catholic Student Center at the University of South Florida. To be built and opened in two phases, hopefully, the combined occupancy of the facility will eventually be over 416 undergraduate students (208 in the first building). The new hall has already been named and is to be called “Bellarmine Hall.” Each student will have their own bedroom in either two or four bedroom units with an efficiency kitchen and a common space and bathroom. There will be ample parking at the three story residence hall and easy access to the campus ministry chapel, and facility. Each of the two wings (two when totally built out) will have rooms for common activities, meetings, prayer services, etc.
The diocese is partnering in this effort with Newman Student Housing who has built similar Catholic residence halls around the country. Father Justin Paskart is the chaplain at the moment but this has been a dream of two of his predecessors, Father Alan Weber and Father Michael Smith. My successor will surely get to bless this facility as I suspect I shall be gone, but like that “field of dreams” in the baseball movie, I can’t wait to come back and behold what has transpired. Parents, if you have a son or daughter likely to attend the main campus of USF, and you will be looking for a faith-based residence facility for them, think Bellarmine!