Renée Stoeckle: Winning Hearts Through Data and Doctrine
By: Darby Evans, ACE Communications
For Catholic education to continue and thrive in America, we need more proponents on the political frontlines. We need advocates who are willing to speak with policymakers, pastors, and parents to ensure that Catholic education is available to all families, regardless of wealth or status. Specifically, we need more people like Renée Stoeckle.
Stoeckle, a graduate of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, is a voice for Catholic schools within Step Up for Students, an organization that helps Florida families with at-risk children or children with special needs figure out how to benefit from school choice legislation.
In Florida, tax-based scholarships enable parents to finance their children’s tuition at their school of choice. Because of these scholarships, a Catholic education is possible for disadvantaged students who could not otherwise afford it. In Stoeckle’s mind, these scholarships address an injustice in our society—all parents, regardless of their ability to pay, should have the ability to choose where their children are educated.
“The way that we view school choice as an organization, in conjunction with the Florida bishops, too, is really the way that it’s stated in canon law,” Stoeckle says. “Parents have this innate, inalienable right to decide which educational path is right for their kids, and the state has a duty and an obligation to provide for that right.”
However, the mere existence of a school choice program does not guarantee that students start filling seats in Catholic schools. For example, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee introduced school choice 27 years ago, yet Catholic school enrollment in the archdiocese is actually lower today than it was in 1990. The passing of a school choice policy introduces a whole new set of obstacles. First and foremost, many families who qualify for scholarships do not feel empowered to access the funds, or they feel unsure how to find and apply to the ideal school for their child.
In addition, many schools and parishes feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of the incoming students. Some communities are even openly resistant to a changing student population. Stoeckle often receives calls from school administrators or donors who worry how scholarship students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds might affect the academic rigor of a community.
For school choice to work, the policy needs a champion–an ambassador who can mediate among Catholic bishops and pastors, state legislators, and Florida families with school-age children.
That’s where Renée Stoeckle comes in.
Stoeckle’s official title at Step Up for Students is Director for Catholic School Initiatives, which means that on any given day, she meets with a wide range of audiences to sing the praises of school choice. To best communicate her message, Stoeckle has become skilled at translating the jargon so that all might come to a shared stance on school choice.
“I can bring in the theological component of choice and the justice component of choice when I’m working with our bishops and our pastors, Stoeckle says. “When I’m working with our superintendents, it’s much more logistics, and when I’m working on the choice side—when I’m working with Step Up—I’m trying to bring in the Church’s perspective on everything and why we believe the things we do and why we do the things we do.”
John Schoenig, the Senior Director of Teacher Formation and Education Policy for the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education, says that Stoeckle’s position is entirely unique because her Catholic schools team at Step Up is the only group in the country working to foster a formal partnership between the Church and a secular, scholarship-granting organization. Schoenig says that for Catholic education to grow in America, more people must engage in the sort of work she is doing.
“[What Renée’s doing] is probably the most promising development with regards to the Catholic schools’ engagement in public policy that I have been aware of in a very long time,” Schoenig says. “We’re trying to help more at-risk kids enjoy the benefits of a Catholic education. If other states can adopt a model similar to what Renée is doing, I think we will have advanced on that goal.”
Stoeckle has advanced the cause of school choice in Florida since she began at Step Up two years ago, but she is not done yet. This school year, the Catholic schools team at Step Up is rolling out the Rising Tide Initiative, a statewide public relations campaign unveiling Step Up’s formal partnership with the Church.
“We have 100,000 kids on a tax credit scholarship statewide. … We have all of these great things happening [at Catholic schools], but we still have 12,000 open seats. We just closed a school two weeks ago. We started last school year with nine principal vacancies,” Stoeckle says. “We were also seeing that statistically, our kids were going to Catholic schools, but they weren’t necessarily staying in or graduating from Catholic schools. ”
Step Up’s Catholic schools team hopes to reverse this trend with the Rising Tide Initiative, funded by the Hilton Foundation. Using a variety of tactics, including social media coverage and school visits for legislators, the initiative aims to “create a united voice for all 205 of [Florida’s K-12] Catholic schools,” many of which cannot afford marketing of their own.
Stoeckle hopes to highlight the schools’ Catholicity, which she views as the schools’ greatest asset.
“Catholic schools are called to bring children into greater understanding of their faith, a greater understanding of community, a greater experience of God,” Stoeckle says. “And then within that, all of these graces come. And that’s why our graduation rates are so great. That’s why our kids are more likely to vote, that they’re more likely to go to college.”
As far as Schoenig is aware, the Rising Tide Initiative is unprecedented in Catholic school education reform. He argues that Catholic schools have suffered because such an effort is so rare.
“Renée is spending the majority of her time with the Catholic school community because they’re the biggest single player in the universe of private school education,” Schoenig says. “I think the fact that she is the only person [leading a policy-driven PR campaign for Catholic schools] is illustrative of why the Catholic school community is so far behind in terms of taking advantage of [school] choice.”
It is evident then, why Renée Stoeckle is so animated about what she does. Her ability to communicate the benefits of Catholic education so effectively with so many distinct groups—marginalized families, pastors, school administrators, and lawmakers—is essential to making school choice work in Florida. As she likes to say, Stoeckle is “winning hearts through data and doctrine,” and she is one of the only people engaged in such a role.
“This is an ongoing journey; it’s never going to stop,” Stoeckle says. “We are constantly inventing and reinventing what we’re learning, there’s always going to be new research, there’s always going to be legislative changes, but by creating this unified voice, we want to connect our schools to one another statewide.”
With more people like Stoeckle on the frontlines of school choice, more families may enjoy the ability to send their children to the Catholic school they desire, regardless of cost. More at-risk children and children with special needs can find the educational environment they deserve. Because of school choice champions like Renée Stoeckle, there is hope yet.