Last spring, the Supreme Court handed down a decision allowing the use of tax credits to fund religious schools in Arizona. This decision should be a tipping point in the resurgent “school choice” movement. The court effectively mapped a route for choice-inclined state legislatures that skirts the First Amendment bar to government “establishment of religion.” Most reactions have defaulted to polarized arguments that pit allies of public education against supposed enemies. Instead, we see the decision as an opportunity to address what President Obama calls “the civil rights issue of our generation”—the unyielding achievement gap between poor students and wealthier students.
Could new funding strategies make a difference? Yes.
Consider the history of Catholic schools in America. In an incisive article published in the spring 2011 issue of National Affairs, Andy Smarick surveys the rise and decline of urban Catholic schools, tracing parallel trends in our society’s ability to educate working-class and immigrant children. Millions educated in parochial schools through the 1960s grew up to make vital contributions to U.S. productivity and culture. Since then demographic shifts, growing Catholic assimilation into the American mainstream and rising costs—along with failures in leadership—have led to the closing of thousands of Catholic schools, especially in inner cities. In the 1960s one in four children in New York City, for example, attended a Catholic school; today, fewer than one in 10 does. The remaining traditional Catholic schools often charge tuition that low-income families cannot afford. A choice in schooling that served society well has all but vanished.
Meanwhile, society’s collective failure in recent decades to educate the very children who most need good schools has been well documented. A black male today is more likely to land in prison than in college; a young Latina enrolled as a freshman in college has about a one in 10 chance of earning a degree.
Cristo Rey and NativityMiguel Networks
Passionate reformers in both the public and the private realms have taken up the challenge to educate children “left behind.” The Cristo Rey and NativityMiguel networks, which we lead, are two examples of innovative, independent, faith-based schools—mostly Catholic in heritage, open to all, founded to serve the urban poor and receiving little support from the church. Both have been cited as models for rejuvenating the vital tradition of urban Catholic education. More than one observer has noted the similarity between well-publicized, pioneering public charter schools and Catholic school models.
Like the best charter school organizations, our schools take responsibility for results. Our schools champion quality, transparency and accountability for student performance—a fair exchange for public trust. Both the NativityMiguel and Cristo Rey networks set high standards and monitor curriculum, professional development, graduate support and academic progress. A partnership with the National Student Clearinghouse, for example, will provide a reliable source of data on students’ educational paths and success after high school graduation.
Why should all of this matter to citizens and taxpayers? Because schools like ours have an outstanding record of success in teaching low-income, minority students. Our graduates master skills, complete high school and pursue higher education at rates far exceeding peer averages.
In the face of enormous need, however, our networks are relatively small. The question of economic viability, which has so far depended on the generosity of private donors and corporate partners, clouds every strategic plan, every vision of transforming more lives by scaling programs to meet the strong demand for them.
We are eager and able to grow faster. And we are not the only ones. At a recent conference organized by the American Center for School Choice, a wide range of faith-based schools found common ground. The expansion of state tax credit programs for education would be one of the most efficient ways to support the growth of strong schools—enabling families to decide which school is best for their children and avoiding some of the most contentious issues by channeling funding through nonprofit organizations rather than through the state or federal government.
Current research on the effects of school choice, in fact, reveals benefits for both students and nearby public schools, according to a study published by the Foundation for Educational Choice (Greg Forster, Ph.D., A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers, 2011). And a nonpartisan report prepared for the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountabi-lity concluded that taxpayers saved $1.49 in state education funding for every dollar lost in corporate income tax revenue due to tax credits for scholarship contributions (Report No. 08-68, December 2008).
Why shouldn’t bold measures be used to tackle one of the costliest, most pernicious ills of modern American society? The human impact of better education for all is not hard to imagine. The economic consequence of bringing all U.S. students up to a baseline level of proficiency for developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, could add $72 trillion to the gross domestic product. Good schools of many kinds—traditional public, public charter, secular and faith-based schools—can hasten progress. We challenge education advocates of all political stripes and lawmakers in all 50 states to seize this moment of opportunity to enact school choice.