Opening Doors

One afternoon in the late 1940’s, the eighth-grade classroom in Our Lady of Lourdes elementary school in Brooklyn was disrupted by the entrance of five or six boys from the local public school. They were part of a released time program that allowed public school children to attend religion classes in parochial and other religious schools. I learned much later that such released time programs were developed in response to a 1948 Supreme Court case, McCollum v. Board of Education. The court’s decision in that case had forbidden the practice known as Week Day Religious Education (W.D.R.E.), which permitted sectarian teachers to teach religion classes in public schools. In Zorach v. Clauson (1952), the court upheld released time programs that provided religious instruction during public school hours but away from public school buildings.

We had no desks for the publicks, as we called them, in our crowded classroom of almost 70 boys. Brother Stanislaus folded down the seats attached to the front of the first row of desks, so the visitors were able at least to sit. But Brother Stan was irritated; he hadn’t received word that the new boys were coming. We had done our catechism for the day already. Adjustments were made, but the publicks slowly disappeared over the next few weeks. Brother Stan told us later that good Catholic parents would have sent their children to Our Lady of Lourdes to begin with.


W.D.R.E. and released time were just two of the many practices that have marked the complex, shifting history of relations between religion and public education in America. I am still surprised by liberal friends and colleagues, with whom I agree on so many issues, who work from an overly simplified version of the history of American education. Their historical blindness translates into a smug certainty about their political position whenever issues of church, state and public education arise. That has happened often in the last few decades and, most recently, in the quarrel over the Cleveland School Voucher Program.

My liberal friends and The New York Times editorial page share the notion that Jefferson, Madison and their compatriots erected a wall of separation between church and state. This wall then led to the creation of secular public schools. It is supposed that these schools flourished through the 19th and most of the 20th century, until shortly after the Second World War, when religious zealots began demanding prayer at the opening of the public school day and at graduation ceremonies, and Catholics began agitating for public monies to support their divisive propagandizing in parochial schools. A few brave souls, we are told, fought against this religious fanaticism, and until very recently managed to shore up that wall of separation between church and state that had been put in place by the founding fathers.

History provides no foundation for these assumptions. Contemporary historians of American education, like Lawrence Cremin, Diane Ravitch, Carl Kaestle and many others have drawn a far more complex picture. James W. Fraser’s Between Church and State: Religion and Education in a Multicultural America (1999) is a comprehensive and nuanced treatment of that school history. Fraser makes the point that the wording of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, was agreed upon because no one of the powerful Protestant churchesCongregationalist, Presbyterian or Episcopalianwas strong enough to establish itself as the official religion of the new nation, though each would have dearly loved to do so.

The radical separation of church and state called for by the Constitution was a necessary compromise. Almost no one in the early Republic saw the first amendment as banning the teaching of Protestant Christianity in the schools. Public school leadership often resided with leading Protestant ministers, and the boards of the charity schools in cities like New York were also dominated by Protestant churchmen. This leadership was reflected in school practices, readers and textbooks.

Arguments over religion in the first half of the 19th century usually took place among the more conservative elements within different Protestant sects, who saw the kind of bland Protestantism championed by educational leaders like Horace Mann (1796-1859), the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, in the interest of keeping the peace among various sects, as wickedly departing from revealed truth. Mann and his universalizing Protestant colleagues in a number of other states were on the verge of having their way when a huge influx of immigrant Irish Catholics into the nation’s cities occurred toward the middle of the century. These Irish, with their clerical leaders, perceived correctly that the Protestantism taught in the schools, however bland, was riddled with anti-Catholic assumptions rooted in three centuries of religious strife. Further, they were willing to pay for their own school systems. In an effort to assuage Catholics, the public schools spoke less about the Bible and became, in our terms, more secular. Further immigration brought more religious diversity to the country and pushed the schools into more secular practices, lest they offend those of a particular religion or of no religion. These developments have created difficult public policy questions for all of us today.

Some time ago, I gave a tepid endorsement to the institutional pluralists who see the public schools as transmitting their own set of unexamined valuesand are therefore anything but neutral. Since the public schools are transmitting their ideologies, these advocates of pluralism call for the public funding of schools sponsored by various religious groups (Teachers College Record, summer 1985). I have always seen my role as more of an inquirer than an advocate; and the complexities of church/state issues in this country have left me with great uncertainty on most policy issues. Further, I feel the same nervousness supporting vouchers as I did marching and demonstrating against the Vietnam War. There were often people around me shouting slogans with which I disagreed and working from political and economic agendas much different from my own.

More recently, however, I have seen the moral imperative of a full-throated endorsement of public funding for the children of the poor who attend Catholic schools in inner cities. Too many doors have already been closed on these children over the last few decades, and so I applaud the Supreme Court decision on June 27 of this year (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) that asserted the constitutionality of providing vouchers to poor and minority students, even though most of these children attend Catholic schools. I do this not so much because I am certain that the religious institutional pluralists are right in their arguments for funding of diverse schools, but because I am appalled by the unwillingness of those in power, including the public school establishment, to take seriously the plight of these children.

Many of my teacher-union friends with whom I have walked on picket lines in the past have been appalled by my suggestion that we ought to look again at the possibilities of vouchers for poor children, even though they are likely to be applied in a Catholic school. The union has for years, unfortunately, waged a fight for seniority rules that have resulted in the transfer of the most experienced teachers out of the most difficult schools. These seniority rules have much to recommend them, but they result in a great deal of collateral damage. They help to close the door of opportunity on the poorest of our children.

In Ohio, where the public education establishment is clearly miffed at the spending of voucher monies in Catholic settings, no suburban public school districts stepped up to the plate, as they might have, to accept Cleveland’s inner city students. Nor would anyone, knowing the long history of school integration efforts coming up against local control of education, have expected them to. This historical opposition to cross-district school integration has also helped to close the door of educational opportunity on the children of the poor.

I am troubled by the overheated rhetoric of some of those who oppose spending voucher money in Catholic schools. This language is as excessive as the speechifying of some on the right, who think the public schools are leading the nation down the road to perdition. We hear that voucher programs like Cleveland’s will weaken American democracy; we are given estimates of outlandish future costs to the American taxpayer. Organizations like People for the American Way blame the political right for opposing reform in the public schools that would make vouchers unnecessary. Would that the right were the only culprit! The opposition to the adequate education of poor children is much more widespread. The dirty little secret of the nation is that we do not wish to spend our money on other people’s childrenand the poor are the other people. We close every door of opportunity on these parents and children, and then try to deny them in their effort to find a way out through the choice of Catholic parochial schools. And we do this by appealing to an utterly unhistorical version of church-state relations.

For decades, I believed that eventually the inequities of the tax system by which we fund public education in most states would be righted. I believed this because I innocently assumed that most Americans held strongly to the idea of equality of educational opportunity, an idea that I felt implied a roughly equal expenditure on each child’s education. I was pleased when in the 1970’s a local state assemblyman on Long Island, where I live, introduced a bill in Albany calling for shifting the source of revenues for education from the real estate tax to a progressive income tax on businesses and individuals. If this were done, the revenues would then be distributed roughly equally throughout the state.

At the same time, education groups in California, Texas and New York developed legal challenges to the practice of funding schools primarily through taxes on real estate values. They appealed to the equal protection clause in the United States Constitution or to similar clauses in state constitutions.

The case I followed most closely was the one in New York brought by the Levittown school district, and joined by New York City and other less wealthy districts throughout the state. Levittown is a white, working-class district that taxed its citizens at very high rates but was unable to come close to spending the kind of money on its children’s education that is spent by neighboring districts with a more substantial property base. All of these equal protection clause cases were eventually lost. The argument raised against the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim was this: while it is true that the system of raising revenues for public schooling through the local property tax has resulted in large differences in per pupil expenditure, that was not the intent of those who set up the funding system. Their intent was the reasonable one of providing local control of education. The quality of education of the children in the less wealthy districts is, like seniority rules, another example of unintended collateral damage. Efforts in the New York State Legislature and in other state legislatures to alter funding practices by either changing the revenue base or revising state-aid formulas in favor of poorer districts were also defeated. More doors of opportunity were closed.

By the mid-80’s I had become less optimistic about the country’s readiness to admit that it was unwilling to pay for the education of other people’s children. Activist lawyers in several states, however, noticed that almost every state has an education article in its constitution. New York’s, for example, says that it is the state’s responsibility to provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated. The decision in Levittown’s equal protection case had rejected the equality argument as the basis of school funding reform, but had opened the door to an adequacy argument, an argument that the state, constitutionally, must ensure an education that satisfies basic minimum requirements.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, an alliance of individuals and parent groups in New York City, hung a recent case on this sound basic education legal hook. The case had a long procedural history, with various claims, defendants and plaintiffs dropping off along the way. On Jan. 9, 2001, however, Justice Leland DeGrasse found for the plaintiffs against the State of New York and Gov. George E. Pataki. Justice DeGrasse had been ordered by a higher court to develop a definition of a sound basic education, to examine the conditions of the public schools of New York City, to decide if they met the criteria for a sound basic education, and if they did not, to determine whether or not the state’s funding system was the cause of the failure. Justice DeGrasse found that the schools had indeed failed to meet the constitutional test of a sound basic education and that the state funding system was at fault. Governor Pataki appealed, and in June of 2002, a year and a half later, Justice DeGrasse was overruled by a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court.

The disdainful tone of the appellate ruling, written by Judge Alfred Lerner, contributed greatly to my belated understanding of the intentions of those in power toward the children of America’s poor and to my willingness to put behind me any second thoughts about poor parents spending education vouchers in parochial schools. Justice DeGrasse, in the trial court, had considered evidence about the quality of the city’s schools. The court looked at inputse.g., class size, teacher quality, curriculum, building conditions and instruments of learning. It looked also at outputse.g., scores on a variety of standardized tests, graduation rates, college attendance and college success rates. The picture painted was devastating, but no surprise to New Yorkers.

Judge Lerner, however, speaking for the majority in the Appellate Court, found the evidence not so compelling. He complained that Justice DeGrasse had worked from a much too expansive notion of a sound basic education. It seemed to me, however, that Justice DeGrasse had tried to carve out a moderate position. He did not expect that all students would be prepared for elite colleges or for the top jobs in the country. He did not even believe that a sound basic education need reflect the new (1996) state regents’ standards, as the plaintiffs had urged. He did, however, point up the fact that citizenship duties such as voting and jury duty can involve people in quite complex matters. He also argued that a sound basic education involved preparation for something other than low level employment.

Judge Lerner disagreed. He said Justice DeGrasse had gone too far in stating that a sound basic education must prepare students for employment somewhere between low-level service jobs and the most lucrative careers.... Society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may be low-level. On the issue of preparation for citizenship, Judge Lerner said, the evidence at trial established that the skills required to enable a person to obtain employment, vote, and serve on a jury, are imparted between grades 8 and 9, a level of skills which plaintiffs do not disagree is being provided.

Thus does the inspector of the soup kitchen cut the soup with water, announcing it should be nutritious enough for this sort of clientele. In New York City, 37 percent of the students are Latino, 35 percent African-American, 15.5 percent white and 11.5 Asian. Justice Saxe, in a vigorous dissent from the panel’s decision, pointed out the implications of the majority’s ruling: I also note that if the State’s constitutional mandate under the Education Article is satisfied by providing students with low-level arithmetic and reading skills, then logically, it has no meaningful obligation to provide any high school education at all. Yes, indeed. But give Justice Lerner and his majority colleagues their due. They have stated the nation’s dirty little secret in public and added that it is acceptable to treat the children of the poor in this way and unwise to try to do anything about it.

Ever the optimist about the possibilities of our public institutions within this great democracy, I have finally received the message: the American middle class does not wish to spend its tax monies on other people’s children, most especially the children of the poor, of immigrants and minority groups. As someone who has worked in public education for more than 40 years, I say: If the parents of poor children, having had so many doors of opportunity closed on them, wish to use their vouchers in Catholic schools, then so be it. After our sorry history of closing so many other doors of educational opportunity, I am pleased we have opened this door in Cleveland and hopeful that other cities will do likewise.

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11 years 11 months ago
William A. Proefreidt, in his article on educational opportunities in inner-city schools, “Opening Doors” (12/2/02), concludes, “The American middle class does not wish to spend its tax monies on other people’s children, most especially the children of the poor....” Not true! American taxpayers refuse to spend more and more money on failed schools where money will not do any good. The Washington, D.C., district is one of the worst in the country. Yet they spend over $10,000 per student and have average class sizes of fewer than 15. What could a Jesuit high school do with that kind of money?

We need competition and alternative choices in inner-city schools. Mr. Proefreidt comes right up to the answer but can’t quite make himself say it. Help for these students is held hostage by a coalition of teacher’s unions and liberal Democratic politicians. The unions will not change; it is against their nature. So Mr. Proefreidt and other liberals need to persuade Democratic politicians to forego the campaign contributions from the unions and do what is right or, horror of horrors, they should vote for conservative Democrats or Republicans. I will support substantial increases in tax dollars for schools when and where it will do some good, if he will take on liberal Democrats to make meaningful reforms.


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