EDITORIAL: Join the effort to make the excellence of a Catholic education available to all

Students and teachers at Holy Rosary Academy cheer the announcement that the school has again been designated as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. The designation recognizes high academic achievement by Holy Rosary students over several years. Photo by Andy Telli

The excellence of Catholic education in the Diocese of Nashville has been in the spotlight recently. 

Holy Rosary Academy has earned the prestigious recognition as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, based on its students’ consistently high academic achievement over several years. Only the top 0.5 percent of the nation’s 130,000 private and public schools earn Blue Ribbon designation.

It was the second time Holy Rosary has been named a Blue Ribbon School, the only private school in Nashville that can make that claim. 

“That doesn’t happen without an excellent teaching staff and students and parents who are committed to learning,” said Holy Rosary Principal Kimber Halliburton. “It truly is a community award for Holy Rosary.”

Also recently, diocesan School Superintendent Rebecca Hammel presented to Randy Lancaster, the chair of the English Department at Father Ryan High School, the 2020 Christ the Teacher Award in recognition of his excellence as a Catholic educator and as a person whose dedication, commitment, self-sacrifice and kindness to everyone represent the heart of Catholic education.

Despite winning the award, Lancaster sees room for improvement. “I don’t ever feel like I’ve arrived,” he said. “I look to people who I feel are great teachers, people who are excellent in their field … and aspire to be that good.”

Despite all that excellence on display, there are many in our community who don’t have access to such an education. And that window of accessibility narrowed even more when the Tennessee Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court ruling that the state’s Education Savings Account (ESA) program violates the state Constitution’s “home rule” provisions that prohibit the State Legislature from passing laws singling out individual counties unless approved by two-thirds of the members of those counties’ legislative bodies or a majority of voters.

The ESA, which was passed by the Legislature in 2019, was designed to offer families in Davidson and Shelby counties the opportunity to access state funds to pay for private education, including Catholic schools. 

The ESAs, which were scheduled to be go into effect for the 2020-21 school year, would offer about $7,100 in state funds to qualifying families living in Davidson or Shelby counties. 

A total of 5,000 ESA student spaces were allotted for the two counties combined for the first year of the program, and the Catholic school systems in the Dioceses of Nashville and Memphis were excited that the program would allow more families to access the benefits of a Catholic education for their children. But then the program was sacked by the lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. The state is planning to appeal the Court of Appeals ruling to the state Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the door of opportunity has once again been slammed in the face of families who want the ability to choose for themselves the best school for their children.

“It is difficult to see parents who desire a different experience for their school-aged children to be denied that decision,” Hammel said. “By withholding programs that enable students to attend schools best suited to their needs, as determined by their parents, we are denying children the opportunity to truly flourish and we are holding on to old systems that have proven to be ineffective for some populations in our state. That’s a tragedy.”

If the Supreme Court allows the lower court rulings to stand, the diocese is hopeful that the groundwork laid to help win passage of the ESA program will make it possible for the state to pursue other avenues to promote school choice.

But the Diocese of Nashville is not standing still. It is working hard to make an excellent Catholic education accessible to as many people as possible. Diocesan schools issued more than $1 million in financial assistance to qualified families this year, with dreams of doing even more in the future. 

One vehicle for doing so is the endowment managed by the Advancement of Catholic Education (ACE) board of directors. Earnings from the endowment, currently valued at about $5 million, are used to provide tuition assistance for qualified students at Catholic schools in the diocese. 

If you value the benefits of your own Catholic school education or the one your children, your grandchildren, or your neighbor’s children are receiving, you can join this effort by supporting the online ACE fundraising event at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27. Visit dioceseofnashville.com/ace to get more information about the event and to make a donation.

Your gift will ensure that future generations will benefit from the excellence on display every day in our Catholic schools.