By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — It’s not a Catholic school voucher plan. Nor is it state funding for Catholic schools.
In fact, a state constitutional amendment that Missouri’s bishops want to put on the November general election ballot for Missouri voters to decide isn’t a plan to siphon money away from public schools.
Quite the contrary, said John Murphy, who is spearheading the statewide effort along with fellow Kansas City Catholic Pat Tuohey.
The amendment would grant a 60 percent state tax credit on donations any person or company gives to a fund established to benefit education, public or private.
And the funds could also be used by public school districts to build such things as endowments for educational purposes, such as the permanent financing of music and arts education.
“Music and arts are the first things that get cut,” in budget-crunched public schools, Murphy told about a dozen people gathered Feb. 9 at the downtown Kansas City Catholic Center to be trained as volunteer signature collectors on the initiative petition drive.
But Murphy said there are many obvious and broad benefits to Catholic schools as well. Donations to scholarship funds to enable low and middle income families to choose Catholic schools for their children would be eligible for the state tax credit. So would contributions to endowment funds that provide a permanent financing tool for Catholic schools, he said.
But, he said, it is deliberately and quite carefully planned not to be a voucher program, which would be a direct government subsidy to families seeking choice between public and private school systems.
“A voucher comes from the government, so the government can stipulate how you spend it,” Murphy said. “A government can also have a lot to say about how an academic institution that parents choose can spend it.”
It is also a constitutional amendment that, once approved, will be next to impossible for the Missouri General Assembly to change, Murphy said.
Murphy also said the tax credit for charitable donations to education won’t be limited to just elementary and high schools
“This will go to all schools in Missouri, elementary through university,” he said.
The proposed amendment is also broader than the Passport Scholarship plan proposed by Chesterfield Sen. Jane Cunningham, which offers tax credits only for donations to private school tuition assistance funds which could be used only by families living within the boundaries of one of the state’s three non-accredited public school districts — Kansas City, St. Louis, and Riverview Gardens in St. Louis.
Funds generated by donations could be used to help pay education costs for any school system, public or private, anywhere in Missouri, he said, and could even be used by public and private universities for such things as endowed faculty chairs and even building projects.
But time is of the essence, Tuohey said.
The campaign has already received the commitment of the Knights of Columbus statewide to gather signatures, but more help is needed and the work needs to be done quickly, he said.
“The drop-dead deadline for all this to be in the hands of the (Missouri) Secretary of State is May 6,” for inclusion on the November ballot, Tuohey said.
“We will need all the petitions at least a week before then in order to collate them and make it all look pretty,” he said.
Tuohey said that some 200,000 signatures from registered voters will be needed, equal to 8 percent of the vote in the 2010 election for governor. In addition, signatures can’t be gathered in just one part of the state. Petitions must be submitted that contain the signatures of the 8 percent standard in six of the nine U.S. congressional districts that existed in 2010 in order to reach the ballot.
To further complicate the process, each petition page can only include the signatures of people living in one county and in one congressional district. For example, a registered voter living in Platte County must sign a “Platte County, Sixth District” page, while a voter in Clay County must sign a “Clay County, Sixth District” page.
Murphy said he and Tuohey will be holding more “train the trainer” sessions for signature gatherers, and urged those who attended the Feb. 9 session to get started collecting signatures and training other volunteers immediately.
“We are sending the apostles here to go out to the four corners of the diocese,” Murphy said. “I think this is a tremendous opportunity for us to organize and see what we can do.”