Beliefnet News

CLEVELAND — Across Northeast Ohio, population shifts from older neighborhoods to the suburbs could mean the closing, merger or consolidation of about one in six schools operated by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.
But in Cleveland proper, Catholic schools have found a guardian angel in state taxpayers, who provided more than $16 million in tuition vouchers for more than 5,500 city children to attend parochial schools this past school year.
Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Cleveland voucher program as a way to assist poor children in failing schools, the once-controversial program has found bipartisan safe harbor in the state budget.
Budget proposals from Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled legislature all provided money to continue the 11-year-old initiative, which gives parents a taxpayer-supported voucher to spend toward tuition at participating private schools.
Even as the Cleveland diocese evaluates its 231 parishes with an eye toward closing or merging about 20 percent of them, the voucher program is supporting some of its 144 schools, including 34 located in Cleveland, which was ranked the poorest big city in America according to Census data.
At Holy Name Elementary in Cleveland’s South Broadway neighborhood, more than 90 percent of students receive vouchers. In at least seven other Catholic elementary schools, more than 80 percent of the students use public dollars to attend.
“Catholic schools are closing by the dozens in large cities all over the country,” said Clint Bolick, director of constitutional litigation at the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank based in Phoenix. “That’s a tragedy for low-income kids. To the extent that vouchers have helped Catholic schools stay open in Cleveland and Milwaukee and elsewhere, that’s a godsend for children.”
But Bolick dismisses the notion that the voucher program is a subsidy for Catholic schools. The schools actually took on more of a financial burden by accepting voucher students and covering the full cost of educating them, he said.
Margaret Lyons, superintendent of the Cleveland diocese’s schools, has a similar view. She declined to be interviewed but responded in writing to questions from a reporter.
“Vouchers have little impact except in so far as they support enrollment,” she wrote. “Positive enrollments stabilize a school.
However, vouchers do not cover the costs, so schools still need to find resources to supplement vouchers.”
Critics of school vouchers contend the program — especially in concert with the newer charter school program — drains badly needed money from Cleveland public schools. Money to support the program comes from a state fund aimed at aiding high-poverty districts.
Last year, about 30 percent of Cleveland students — 11,500 in charter schools and 12,000 in Catholic and other schools — attended private schools while the public system enrolled about 53,000.
Vouchers recast the urban school problem as a consumer challenge in which discerning parents are rewarded for “escaping” the system, rather than for working together to improve it, said Jan Resseger, minister for public education for the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ.
“The Cleveland voucher program and the newer charter program have made it harder for us to understand our collective obligation across the region to ensure opportunity for society’s most vulnerable children,”
Resseger said.
But the voucher program remains popular with parents who receive the assistance. Tony Kaloger, a Cleveland father who currently has one child in school on a voucher, said his only disappointment is that the program hasn’t expanded more since the 2002 court ruling.
Kaloger said all parents should be able to choose where their children go to school. That’s especially true for parents in Cleveland, where more than 1,000 seniors failed to graduate this spring because they flunked one or more parts of a state graduation test, he said.
“We’re disappointed in the fact that it hasn’t grown and been made available to more people,” Kaloger said. “For us, personally, it worked out fine. But being an advocate for the program, your hope is that it will also help others.”
Vouchers have been expanded statewide, but the ones outside Cleveland are limited to children attending low-performing public schools. That means suburban Catholic schools in communities with a high-functioning public system won’t be able to share in the extra enrollment that vouchers bring.
In Cleveland’s Catholic schools, half the children are non-Catholic.
Will providing vouchers for them while closing suburban parish schools create tension among Catholic parishioners?
“Tension isn’t the word I would use,” said Lyons, the diocese’s superintendent. “Catholics are taught they are responsible for those who are less fortunate. That being said, when financial crunches become personal, certainly, parents may sense a loss.”

Washington – President Bush’s nominee for surgeon general faces an uncertain confirmation in light of a 16-year-old paper he wrote as part of the United Methodist Church’s Committee to Study Homosexuality.
In an eight-page paper titled “Pathophysiology of Male Homosexuality,” Dr. James Holsinger described physical injury and even death that can result from what he called “anal eroticism.”
After submitting the report to the church committee in 1991, Holsinger resigned, convinced the group’s ultimate verdict “would follow liberal lines,” according to a Time magazine article that year.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will begin confirmation hearings for Holsinger on Thursday (July 12).
Gay rights organizations, including the Christian group Soulforce, are angry over what they see as Holsinger’s hostility toward homosexuals.
“As the leading spokesperson for matters of public health, the surgeon general should be guided by medical science, not religion-based bigotry,” said Soulforce Executive Director Jeff Lutes.
The Department of Health and Human Services dismissed claims that Holsinger holds any anti-gay prejudice.
“He basically remains focused on helping all those in need,” said HHS spokesman Brynn Barnett. “He’s been consistent with sound science and the best medical practices.”
The White House repeatedly affirmed the nomination and Holsinger’s credentials. In addition to his work as a cardiologist, he has served in the Army Reserve, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Kentucky state cabinet.
He currently serves as president of the United Methodist Judicial Council, which acts as the denomination’s highest court. During his tenure, the council has handed down several rulings that raised concerns with gay rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign. In a 2005 decision, the council upheld the defrocking of the Rev. Beth Stroud, a lesbian, and also sided with a pastor who denied church membership to an openly gay man.
As surgeon general, Holsinger would be the nation’s chief medical educator. Upon announcing the nomination, President Bush noted that a special focus of Holsinger’s work would be increasing awareness of childhood obesity.

Sales of Christian products increased to $4.6 billion last year, according to reports by the major trade association for Christian retailing.
The $4.63 billion in 2006 sales, through a range of religious and secular distribution channels, is up from $4.3 billion in 2004, $4.2 billion in 2002 and $4 billion in 2000, reports CBA, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based trade association.
CBA, formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association, has a membership of more than 2,000 Christian stores, including national and regional chains, church-owned stores and independent retailers.
A new CBA study shows that 52 percent of Christian products are sold by Christian retailers while general market retailers — including stores such as Wal-Mart and Borders — sold 33 percent. The remaining 15 percent of sales including direct-to consumer and non-profit ministry sales.
“Christian retail is the supplier’s best partner — historically, in the immediate and long-term,” CBA President Bill Anderson said in a statement. “This channel sells more Christian products than all the other channels combined.”
But the Christian market, along with other retailers, is grappling with new ways consumers make their purchases. The International Christian Retail Show, which began Sunday in Atlanta and ends Thursday, includes sessions to address such issues as customer loyalty and “the next generation of Christian consumers.”
Anderson said some Christian retailers are struggling while others are opening new stores.
“Christian retailers have had to respond to increased competition, challenges to traffic and price wars,” he said. “And while we have lost some stores in the process, some of the smartest, most savvy retailers have not only survived, but have been improved by the challenges of recent years. They’ve been through a lot and are better retailers for it.”

Jerusalem – For the first time in its history, the 22-nation Arab League will send a delegation to Israel this week, with the mission of discussing a sweeping peace initiative as well as the threat posed by Hamas and other Islamic extremists.
The announcement from Israeli and Arab diplomats came Sunday, just as Israel’s Cabinet approved the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners in a bid to bolster moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.
The Arab League historically has been hostile toward the Jewish state, but has grown increasingly conciliatory given the expanding influence of Islamic extremists in the region – a concern underscored by Hamas’ violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last month.
Jordan’s foreign ministry said Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit would arrive in Jerusalem on Thursday for talks with Israeli officials – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the foreign ministers would lead an Arab League mission to Israel to discuss the Arab peace plan, which would trade full Arab recognition of Israel for an Israeli withdrawal from all lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war and the creation of a Palestinian state.
“This is the first time the Arab League is coming to Israel,” Regev said. “From its inception the Arab League has been hostile to Israel. It will be the first time we’ll be flying the Arab League flag.”
Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa said Sunday that “the upcoming visit of Egypt’s and Jordan’s foreign ministers to Israel upon the request of the Arab committee of peace initiative is to conduct necessary contacts with Israel.”
The two foreign ministers, whose countries have peace agreements with Israel, have been designated as the League’s official point men for the Arab peace initiative.
Livni met them in Cairo in May for the first official, public talks between the two sides, and the Arab peace initiative was the focus.
Israel rejected the Arab plan outright when Saudi Arabia first proposed it in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian uprising. But it softened its resistance after moderate Arab states endorsed the plan again in March, sharing their concerns about Iran’s growing influence.
Israeli officials have said they welcomed aspects of the plan, while rejecting its call for a return of all of the West Bank and an implied demand to take in Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that followed Israel’s creation.
In another gesture of support for the moderate Palestinian leadership, Livni met late Sunday in Jerusalem with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, according to Fayyad and Foreign Ministry spokesman Regev.
Fayyad said the meeting centered on ways to “push the peace process forward” as well as “issues related to the daily life of the Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip.” Regev said the two officials discussed events in the Palestinian territories and “how the larger Arab world can help the process.”
But at the same time, Israel has continued military operations aimed at Palestinian militants in the West Bank. Israeli forces killed a Palestinian gunman late Sunday in an exchange of fire near the town of Jenin, Palestinian officials and the army said. Islamic Jihad said the militant, Mohammed Nazal, 24, was one its leaders.
Moderate Arab countries and the West have been pushing for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking since Gaza fell to Hamas, a group that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and has killed more than 250 Israelis in suicide bombings. Abbas dismissed Hamas from government after the Gaza takeover and set up an emergency Cabinet of loyalists that has Western and moderate Arab backing.
Last month, Egypt hosted a summit of the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders to show support for Abbas and to discuss the resumption of peace talks.
At that meeting Olmert pledged to free 250 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in a goodwill gesture meant to bolster Abbas.
On Sunday the Cabinet formally approved the prisoner release. But the timing remained unclear, reflecting a dispute between security officials, who want to free only prisoners whose terms are almost up, and Olmert, who wants a more significant gesture.
Palestinians criticized Israel for not consulting with them on who should be let go, and said the matter should be referred to a joint committee on prisoners the two sides set up two years ago.