Politics & Policy

John Boehner’s Social-Justice Project

A bipartisan project for D.C.’s families

She took four buses from Ward 8 in inner-city Washington, D.C., to get to the Dirksen Senate Office building early one cold February morning. She was 20 minutes late, but finally made it, taking a standing spot in the back of the committee room.

The hearing was for the SOAR Act, which would ensure a future to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. The woman was the mother of one of the students in the program.

“I usually try to see the argument on both sides . . . but I can’t,” she heard Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) say.

To which she audibly replied, “Amen.”

That senator, who did not know her or her child, a D.C. Opportunity scholar, cared enough to fight for the program that made the child’s education possible.

Thanks to that scholarship, her child attends St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, one of the Consortium of Catholic Academies schools in Washington, D.C. James Cardinal Hickey established the consortium in 1997 to ensure extra help for the schools that need the most financial help to thrive. The four schools have changed over the years, but have always been in poor areas, with most of the students enrolled below or at the poverty level in a city that has the highest child-poverty level in the United States.

On Wednesday night in Washington, supporters of the consortium schools will gather at the Capital Hilton for an annual fundraiser, started in 2003 by John Boehner, who is now speaker of the House, and the late senator Ted Kennedy. The dinner is without political speeches, starring students from the consortium schools. A year’s tuition at a consortium school is $5,600. On average, $2,300 is collected from the parents. And it actually costs $8,100 to educate each student. So “we’ve become dependent on the dinner,” said Vincent Burke, managing director of business development and counsel at the Bank of Georgetown and chairman of the consortium board.

Each school in the consortium “provides a caring learning environment where children are encouraged to be their best and that anything is possible — our schools provide the ladder for students to reach their goals,” says Marguerite Conley, executive director of the consortium. “This is evident in our graduation rate and Catholic, private, and magnet high-school acceptance rate — 100 percent graduation rate and 91 percent acceptance at Catholic, private, or magnet high schools in the Washington area.”

“Our academies provide an option for parents who want their children to receive a quality education in a safe, faith-filled environment,” Conley explains. Accountability is the word most commonly used to describe the consortium difference by those familiar with the schools in these underserved areas. “Students enrolled are expected to work, to behave, and they do . . . have a product that works, and we deliver it at a cost about half the public schools’,” Burke happily boasts.

But that’s harder to do than it used to be, of course. Remembering the religious sisters who were once the mainstay of Catholic education in the United States, Burke says: “We had free labor when I went to school. That doesn’t happen anymore.” But “we benefited from what the nuns did for us.” And now it’s our turn “to give back what we got,” he explains.

And while 66 percent of the 800 students enrolled are not Catholic, there is no question that the schools are.

Each of the consortium schools “is an extension of the ministry of the parish. It is in administering this ministry that the parish helps bring into full fruition the kingdom of Heaven.” Conley continues: “First and foremost each school in the consortium is a Catholic school. Beyond the religious symbols throughout the building, daily prayer, and weekly Mass, each student receives a quality education in a faith-filled environment that encourages students to live Gospel values, not just learn about them. Respectful of students of all religions, the schools in the Consortium of Catholic Academies provide a faith foundation that will sustain these students now and in the future.”

The non-Catholic students “participate, and their parents want them to. After all, it was their parents who selected these schools,” Burke notes.

About Wednesday night’s congressional co-hosts Boehner and Lieberman, Conley says: “I am most impressed by Speaker Boehner and Senator Lieberman’s true belief that all students, regardless of income level, are entitled to a quality education that will provide them access to the American dream.”

“The speaker has been our most ardent supporter,” says Burke. The annual dinner began in 2003, when Boehner and Kennedy, both products of Catholic schools, joined up to host the fundraiser. In addition to the fall fundraiser, Boehner, according to those familiar with the speaker and the consortium schools, has been a faithful visitor to the schools every school year since 2003 — as classroom reader, teacher booster, and, extending the classroom, Capitol tour guide. This past January, he hosted students, family, teachers, and others involved in the consortium in the speaker’s box during the State of the Union address, as well as the cardinal of the Archdiocese of Washington, Donald Wuerl.

Additionally, there is a scholarship now given annually in the name of his former chief of staff, Paula Nowakowski, who died suddenly in January 2010. The board of directors established the scholarship after an outpouring of generosity for the schools after her death, in honor of her support for consortium schools. Two full two-year scholarships have been awarded to sixth graders who demonstrate a commitment to community and faith. Additionally, the recipient of the scholarship is presented a flag by the Speaker of the House that flew over the Capitol building the day after Nowakowski died, to fly in front of their school for a year.

Before the future of the Opportunity Scholarship Program was secured for the time being during the continuing-resolution fight in April that almost shut down the government, consortium students — many of whom don’t know they are recipients of financial aid; it’s up to each family whether or not to tell the child — got involved in the lobbying efforts to keep the program alive. That they, too, give back, is an important component of the holistic moral-character education provided at consortium schools — a “real-life civics lesson,” as one supporter describes it.

Making sure that students from families with limited financial resources get a quality education is “a real social-justice issue,” as Burke puts it. “Poor parents can’t send their kids to Sidwell Friends like the president does. But they want the best for their kids just like the president does.” He’s grateful to Boehner, the late senator Kennedy, and Lieberman. Recognizing that Washington, D.C., has become a second home as they serve in Congress, these legislators have taken the initiative to help keep the lights on in these beacons of opportunity for D.C. youth.

For information on Wednesday’s dinner, contact Elizabeth Ross at the Consortium for Catholic Academies (Elizabeth.Ross@catholicacademies.org, 301-853-5303).

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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