One of President Donald J. Trump’s campaign promises for his first 100 days in office was to introduce legislation that “redirects education dollars to give parents the right to send their kids to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice.” This commitment to school choice was underscored by Mr. Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos, longtime a champion of charter schools and voucher programs, as secretary of education.
Catholic schools constitute the largest alternative to the public educational system, and the National Catholic Educational Association strongly supports school choice. Its public policy director, Sister Dale McDonald, recently told Catholic News Service that enabling families of all income levels to choose religious education is a matter of justice: “We aren’t meant to serve only the rich. As a church, we’re committed to serving all God's people.”
School choice does not mean abandoning the commitment to the common good exemplified by the Catholic school system. All school systems that benefit from government funds, including charter schools, should be held accountable not only for standardized test scores but also for treating all students with dignity, including those with disabilities and those for whom English is a second language. (During her confirmation hearings, Ms. DeVos was disconcertingly vague about the duties of nonpublic schools that receive federal funds to provide an adequate education to special needs students.)
Much of the opposition to voucher programs, and to the nomination of Ms. DeVos, has come from teachers’ unions and others who fear the weakening of public schools, but public schools should build support based on their performance rather than on the maintenance of financial obstacles for families seeking faith-based or alternative education. It is especially outrageous that 38 states still have so-called Blaine amendments, which proliferated in the late-19th century and prohibit public funds from going to “sectarian” schools. As a Supreme Court majority wrote in 2000, ruling that the U.S. Constitution allows public funds to go to religious schools, these state amendments arose “at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church…and it was an open secret that sectarian was code for Catholic.” The attention given to charter schools should not distract us from the fact that true school choice is not possible as long as these noxious state restrictions remain in place.