MADISON — Wisconsin’s Roman Catholic bishops urged members of the Wisconsin Legislature to support Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed expansion of the parental choice program and creation of a Special Needs Scholarship Program.

“We back this effort out of a conviction that parents, as the primary educators of their children, must have the community’s support in selecting a form of education that best meets their child’s needs – academic, psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical,” wrote the bishops in a letter distributed March 5 to members of the legislature. “Choice in education is a tool through which parents may ensure the proper formation of their children.”

Parental choice programs exist in Milwaukee and the Racine Unified School District. Under Walker’s budget proposal, unveiled in his biennial budget address Feb. 20, nine communities would be added to the program: Kenosha, Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Madison, Beloit, Waukesha, Sheboygan, West Allis and Superior. Walker also announced a provision of his budget would create a Special Needs Scholarship Program that would provide state-funded scholarships for children with special needs to attend a school of their choice, either public or private.

The bishops' letter to the members ot the Wisconsin Legislature.

In the bishops’ letter, distributed by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the public policy arm for the bishops, they said their support for the limited expansion of the program is a “much needed step in the right direction, especially for families hindered by limited means and limited options.”

They rejected the notion that their support for the expansion is based on the fact that it benefits Catholic education or devalues public education.

“Some suggest we support choice in education because it funds our (Catholic) schools. Others say the programs devalue public education. Neither is the case,” they wrote. “Vibrant religious and independent schools can and do coexist with quality public schools. It is possible to affirm and support both.”

They noted private and public sectors often work together and receive state and federal funding.

“Catholic hospitals, charitable agencies and universities, along with their public counterparts, receive public funds to assist the poor and vulnerable,” wrote the bishops, suggesting that the work of public and private actors is recognized in a pluralistic society with state and federal funds.

The Catholic Church has supported the role of education as integral to the advancement of society for centuries, according to the bishops.

“It is as important as a right to food, shelter, clothing and work. As people of faith, we have been, and remain, willing and useful partners with public institutions,” wrote the bishops. “Our Catholic school communities are eager to strengthen this partnership in education. We hope our contributions continue to be welcome.

“Please support choice in education,” they concluded.

Public hearings with the Joint Finance Committee will likely be held in March and early April around the state, according to Kim Wadas, associate director, education and health care for the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. During that time, individuals can voice their opinions on the proposed budget. Once the public hearings have concluded, the Joint Finance Committee will amend the budget and pass a version that will be sent to the two houses for a vote. An identical version of the budget must be passed by both houses before it goes to the governor for his signature. The current budget expires the last day of June so a new budget would take effect July 1, 2013.

In a letter posted on their website and in the March 3 Holy Family Parish bulletin, priests at the Fond du Lac parish also voiced their support for expansion of the parental choice program.

“Holy Family Catholic Community joins the Catholic bishops of Wisconsin in supporting the expansion of parental choice programs to the Fond du Lac School District and the creation of a Special Needs Scholarship Program. Both proposals are a necessary step forward in giving all parents the ability to choose a school that best meets the needs of their child,” read the note in the bulletin, signed by Fr. Bob Stiefvater “on behalf of the priest team of Holy Family Catholic Community.”

The team echoed the position of the bishops in noting that taxpayer support for public and private schools, hospitals, universities and other institutions is a characteristic of the country’s democracy.

“Public and private hospitals and universities receive both federal and state funds to assist low income individuals. We believe this should also be the case with primary and secondary schools,” wrote the Fond du Lac priests.

Also speaking out last week in favor of the governor’s proposed expansion of choice was the organization, Hispanics for School Choice.

“The parents that we are in touch with are thrilled with the prospect of having more educational choices for their children,” said Jason S. Cyre, Hispanics for School Choice executive director. “They want to start planning their children’s future, not a political campaign.”