Alma E. Miller was 102 years old when she died in 1994. For 78 of those years she had been a member of the religious congregation called the Society of the Sacred Heart. During much of that time, she was the mistress of studies, that is to say, the academic dean, in one or other of the schools for girls that her congregation sponsored. Her own high school years, she once remarked, had prepared her for this position by putting her through a stiff curriculum. She had been fortunate, she said, in having attended Hunter College High School in New York City, a selective public school attached to one of the city’s public colleges. In Sister Alma’s day, both the school and the college enrolled women only, and their academic programs were not permissive. The teachers were superb, Sister Alma said, and all the high school students were required to take four years each of Latin, a modern language and history, along with three years of math.
This was not only a case in which firsthand experiences of both public and private education came happily together in the life and work of one person. It also points up the central fact about American schooling. For the past two centuries, education in the United States has involved two distinct but complementary systems, the public and the nonpublic. Particularly at the elementary and secondary levels, the schools in both these systems have been schools of the people. They have not merely coexisted; they have been partners in educating the rising generations.
What’s more, the smaller partner has sometimes been more effective. For example, ever since the end of the Second World War, Catholic parochial schools in the big cities have been praised for doing a better job than their neighboring public counterparts. A young man in Spanish Harlem told a reporter in 1964 that he had reached sixth grade in a New York City public school without being able to read. But when I was in seventh grade, he added, I went to a Catholic school for a year. Man, that school cared about me and about everybody, and they wanted to teach and they wanted me to learn.
In one crucial aspect, however, this partnership has been curiously unbalanced. Although both systems serve the general welfare, only the public schools are supported by public funds. Even as recently as 50 years ago, it was taken for granted that nonpublic schools, particularly if they were church-affiliated, enjoy a twofold immunityimmunity from suppression and immunity from substantial public aid.
This is not a conclusion dictated either by the ideals of a secular democracy or the principle of the separation of church and state. After all, England, Scotland, Canada, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia are quite comfortable in providing nonpublic schools, including religious ones, with major financial support.
In the mid-19th century, it was widely assumed that the public school system was satisfactorily, if nondenominationally, Protestant. The New Englander, a Congregationalist quarterly founded at Yale, remarked expansively in 1848: We owe our salvation to our public schools. In the summer of 2006 the American people are more religiously and ideologically diverse than ever, so the question of the relationship of nonpublic schools to public support can no longer be defined in the terms of New England Congregationalism.
The majority of these private schools are church-related, whether they be Catholic parish schools or the Christian schools established by evangelicals or the flourishing Yeshivas in New York City’s Brooklyn. They all take reading, writing and arithmetic seriously. They also take religion seriously, and many families want that for their childrenan education in which both religious and secular maturity is nourished.
Rethinking the question of nonpublic schools and public aid must take place at the level of the 50 states, where most of the obstacles are. Campaigns for such measures as vouchers and tuition tax credits must work for changes in state constitutions that prohibit using tax monies for private schools. Such aid would be a good investment for a state because nonpublic schools are relatively inexpensive. The average public school cost per pupil in 2005-6 was $8,019, and probably twice that in wealthy suburbs. The average cost per pupil in Catholic elementary schools is $4,268. The average tuition in these schools is $2,607. The difference is made up from church resources and fund-raising drives and has been estimated as amounting to a $19.4 billion annual contribution to the common good.
It is politically certain that nonpublic schools are not going to receive full public financial support. But in the United States of 2006, it is time to put a new principle in place. Nonpublic schools may not have a right to equal aid, but they do have an equal right to some aid.