Without Catholic schools, 'school choice' is no choice at all

(CNS photo)

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.

Derrick Weiller
5 months 2 weeks ago

Message to Sister Dale McDonald:
A Catholic education has been my greatest blessing.
I wish it for every child.
No public dollars, however, shall fund it.
Find some other way!
.

Lisa Weber
5 months 2 weeks ago

I agree that Catholic education should not be funded with public money because there should be a separation of church and state. Catholic education is good education, but I do not want to support schools that teach creationism instead of science with tax dollars.

Vincent Gaglione
5 months 2 weeks ago

Thank God, say I, for the Blaine Amendment in so many state constitutions! That obvious attempt to undermine Catholic education had unexpected blessings for the nation. It prevented the Christian schools, set up in the South during the civil rights era to avoid the desegregation of schools, from getting public funding. It also undermined efforts of white Catholic parents to avoid desegregation in northern cities’ public schools. It prevents cult schools from getting public funds for subversive and perverted beliefs. And, while I hate to give any succor whatsoever to my conservative friends fulminating with anti-Islamic prejudices, it prevents schools that will teach perverted ideas of sharia law from getting public funds!

I contribute financially monthly to my parish Catholic grade school. I contribute annually to my alma mater Catholic high school endowment. I pay the tuition for my grandnephews to attend Catholic school. And I condemn the failure of Catholic schools to pay a living wage to their employees and nuns while some Bishops and clergy live rather comfortably.

Public funds to school choice are not the solution to underfinanced poorly performing public schools. I don’t want the spigot for my tax monies supporting situations that are inimical to the common good. It’s bad enough that we spend what we spend on defense when we have enough atomic weaponry to blow up the world 20 times over! 0.01% of defense money given to public schools would go a long way to providing public schools with the necessary resources to improve their results. Public funds for school choice is not the solution to that problem.

Tom Maher
5 months 2 weeks ago

School Choice programs with some minimum level of public funding have existed as part of state education laws in many states for decades supported by very diverse groups from every background, religious belief and political belief.

Overall School Choice supporters want to improve American education grades K to 12 by enabling individual American students to attain much higher levels of education achievement. While American education expenditure per student is one of the highest in the world, still American students have a significantly lower educational achievement when compared to the students of most other developed nations in the world.

School Choice proponents changed the measure of educational success based on students educational performance rather than high level of educational funding per student. The problem of lavish educational expenditure while student educational achievement remained chronically low was recognized decades ago. Mayor Koch in the 1980s said of the New York City school system which was extremely well funded but its students had chronically low achievement levels that New York City schools could better use their educational funds to send all its student's to Swiss Boarding Schools.

School Choice proponents recognizes that in America funding level does not explain America's low educational results of its students compared to international standards of developed nations. School funding levels do not explain or correct American student's low educational achievement results.

Qualitative factors related to individual students prevent one, some or many of the students of a particular school from attaining adequate educational achievement results often from grade to grade. Low student educational achievement is a nationwide problem that has existed for more than half a century in schools in wealthy, middle income and low income areas.

School Choice proponents at a minimum want schools performance measured by individual student educational achievement results.

While the School Choice perspective has widely caught on nationwide, nevertheless School Choice ideas are fiercely opposed by very politically powerful education groups such as the National Educational Association and teachers unions.

This is why Betsy DeVos the School Choice proponent and educational reformer is being fiercely opposed for Secretary Of Education. The vote in the U.S. Senate on DeVos' confirmation this Tuesday is expected to be very close. However DeVos could be confirmed in which case the nation would likely more vigorously encourage School Choice measures which would allow parent to send students to more suited alternative schools as may exist or come to exist. With the nationwide chronically low educational achievement results the nation has little to lose by expanding School Choice programs nationwide in some form lead by School Choice education reformer Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

DeVos' confirmation would be a breakout for federal School Choice programs. As this editorial rightly points out as of the 21st Century the Supreme Court ruled the Constitution allows federal educational funding of religious schools. The old "separation of church and state" was always an interpretation of the Constitution which the Court has ruled does not apply to federal education funding. Federal School Choice programs are Constitution and can be implemented. The Blaine amendments are state laws which do not apply to federal programs. The editorial political assessment that the Blaine amendment will stop religious schools from being in federal School Choice programs is way too pessimistic political assessment. The real case is if Betsy DeVos is confirmed there is nothing but blue skies for implementing federal School Choice programs nationwide. And even locally the Blaine Amendment thinking of the 19th and 20th centuries belongs in a museum. In an age of diversity it just no longer makes sense to single out a single religious group such as Catholics. Also the secular progressives from the 1930s or 1960s while they still exist are not in control of any branch of government especially the courts. The First Amendment religious freedoms are now being interpreted as was always intended without the secular, progressive or Marxist interpretations of the Courts of the 1930s and 1960s. The challenge today is to vastly improve individual student educational achievement results. If schools can do this as Catholics Schools have done for more than a century this result is what School Choice programs are after.

Catholics schools will be funded for the education results of individual students. No one cares or wants to know about the religious aspects of Catholic schools, Protestant schools or Muslim schools. All schools will be measured only on their ability to achieve high student achievement results which historically Catholic schools are highly adapt at exceeding all state educational requirements.

Stuart Meisenzahl
5 months 2 weeks ago

I have no objection to vouchers for any school chosen by parents, including Catholic Schools.
I am shocked but not surprised at the liberal social justice drum beaters who think that the Blaine Amendments, conceived in naked prejudice, are somehow just fine. Incredibly this is same crowd that thinks universities must be renamed because the school's original founders were slave owners. They openly insist that The Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton must be renamed because Wilson thought all Africans were inferior, (.....no mention or seeming concern with of his support for the Margaret Sanger program requiring eugenics, sterilization of people deemed inferiors,etc)

But more importantly where was the church leadership to keep these schools open over the past 30+ years without vouchers?
The Catholic family is no different than any other family: they want the best for their children and in the heyday of the Catholic School System that meant they were willing to join together in parish groups to work, raise money, give time and provide the effort to both build and maintain their Parish School. They were encouraged and led by the pastors and the bishops. More importantly the result wasn't just thriving schools, it was thriving parishes where the parents all knew each other. The choice of church for attending mass wasn't based on where it was quickest, or had the shortest homily,or the best choir, but rather on where the parishoners knew each other through their support of the school. In short, not unexpectedly the parents effort and parish loyalty was built upon their children and their best interest
Starting in the 70's when financial and demographic problems arose, pastors and bishops responded not with leadership but with closures and consolidations of the schools. As the school system withered it caused the entire parish system to weaken and many collapsed or were consolidated. The parents' parish loyalty simply vanished with the school. Roman Catholics became the "Roaming Catholics" and parish membership incidental to personal preference or convenience. Parish donations diminished or dried up. .

Show me a thriving parish today,filled with active young parents,and you are most likely to find a thriving school complete with uniforms; baking contests;church festivals;altar societies;and fund raising programs all manned by school parents. Before and after Sunday mass the parents linger in the vestibule talking with each other with children in tow. The priests are part of the vestibule crowd and know the families by name

Vouchers may help to restablish some of the schools that didn't get sold off but leadership from the front is essential. Build the school and you build the parish. That was a lesson the bishops throughout the United States once knew and practiced. Vouchers may yet help rebuild the parishes.Perhaps this is what the original Blaine amendments sponsors and adherents actually understood and feared. Don't be surprised if the Teachers Union becomes the principal supporter of the defense of the state Blaine Amendments
.

Tom Maher
5 months 1 week ago

Today, Tuesday Feb. 7, 2017, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education in a historic 51-50 vote by the U.S. Senate where Vice President Pence voted to break a tie vote, the first time in the history of the U.S. Senate a Vice President resolved a tie Senate confirmation vote.

This demonstrated once again the Trump administration political power to get even its more controversial appointees confirmed. However the confirmation process has been historically much slower than usual and continues to lag going in Trump's third week in office with many key positions such as Attorney General have not had confirmation vote due to very hostile partisan resistance to almost all Trump appointees. Some confirmation hearings were boycotted by Democrats until committee rule changes were made to allow all committee Senators in attendance to vote to advance the confirmation of an appointees in committee.

Betsy DeVos confirmation advanced in committee by the vote of the Republican majority in the committee and then the final Senate confirmation vote of the entire Senate including the Vice President Pence.

Accordingly with a Republican President, Congress and Senate, Betsy DeVos' education reforms to expand School Choice programs are now very likely to be advance subject to the review of more detailed legislative plans in Congress. The public school monopoly American education has been decisively broken to now allow more funding and educational resources to be available alternative schools. More parents will have school choices if they need an alternative to the local public school for their children's education. This is an historic shift in political power that allow parents to have more tangible say-so in their child's education that will be hard for public school administrators to ignore. School Choice makes parents able to select which school is best for their child's education. Parents will now have a School Choice alternative when their local public school is not enabling higher levels of educational achievement of students. Parent's will now have power to reaction to the local school's ability to educate their children. The parent's interest in proper education of their child will now be a more important focus in public schools administration. This is a major educational advance in getting the best educational achievement for students from their school.

School Choice is now much more likely to be available nationwide in all areas.

Vincent Gaglione
5 months 1 week ago

Some comments on those who see the DeVos confirmation as potential revitalization for Catholic education in the United States.

First, regarding an opinion which I have held for years, Catholic education has failed miserably in what I presumed is its primary function….to create a Catholic product. Why have so many of those products abandoned practice of the faith and its values, e.g. our empty and emptying pews!

Historically, the nation’s Bishops mandated Catholic education in response to Protestant hegemony in the management of the public school systems which Catholic children attended. Thankfully such religious bigotry has ended. The original reason for starting Catholic schools has long disappeared.

Second, in NYC large numbers of former Catholic school pupils migrated from parochial schools to public charter schools. Charter schools are free. The tuition costs of Catholic schools stretch the ability to pay by the majority of working class Catholic parents. The schools were long ago staffed solely by nuns and brothers whose orders received stipends, not salaries, for their work. Not so any longer.

Current Catholic schools are notorious for underpaying their staffs compared to public and private non-denominational school staffs. A living wage is part of Catholic social teaching. Vouchers will not cover the total tuition bill. And justice will demand that with the additional supports from vouchers, Catholic school staffs should be paid commensurate with their tasks. Tuitions will not disappear, and maybe not decrease significantly. Catholic pocketbooks will continue to be stretched.

Third, what indeed was the motive of parents for the enrollment of their children in Catholic schools? For many, discipline, not Catholicism, was the issue. (Amazingly some people conflate discipline with Catholicism!) The public charter schools address those issues. Most charter schools enforce rigid discipline and disregard the enrollment of children with moderate to severe social, emotional, and learning disabilities. DeVos has been a big proponent of “for profit” charter schools. In my opinion her alleged support for vouchers only increased the political base to support her main thrust to win support for “for profit” charter schools in Michigan. Classic bait and switch!

Finally, I would make the case that some of the current polarization in the nation comes from school choice. The evangelicals and Catholics who used segregated parochial schools to avoid the integration of public schools have produced some of the most outspoken supporters of Trump. Ironically, when Trump’s rhetoric and behaviors were at their most unChristian, these products of Christian education loudly shouted their support for him. The Catholics even ignored Trump’s characterization of the Pope as “disgraceful”! To go back to my original point, what is the purpose of Catholic education if not Catholic faith and values?

Like so many Republicans before her on allegedly core Catholic issues, DeVos gives lip service but no true intent. We advocates for Catholic schools must put our own money where our mouths are and not expect to survive on the public dime.

Stuart Meisenzahl
5 months 1 week ago

Vince
Many fine points.
But as noted above the Catholic Schools were central to the development and maintenance of the Catholic Parish..
Our Pastors and Bishops failed in their leadership obligations in meeting obstacles imposed by demographic shifts and economic stress. It was simply easier for them to abandon the schools than fight and lead the Catholic population to maintain them. American Bishops and priests became more interested in growing and maintaining "the missions" of South America and Africa than the maintenance of their own flock. Pastors were relieved to shed the burden of dealing with the physical plant and equipment, not to mention the teachers groups, and parental complaints.
Too late the clergy discovered that in too many cases if you close the school you risk the tossing out the parental involvement factor that energized and glued together the parish.....a new phenomena of the "Roaming Catholic" was born.
Again as noted above, somehow our poor immigrant forebears could build and maintain a fabulous system of schools and parishes which by comparison their immensely rich progeny somehow can not nowmaintain. The difference I believe is attributable to lack of Catholic clerical leadership. In addition it has become fashionable to view a rich history of past success as just meeting the needs of a long gone immigrant Church

Vincent Gaglione
5 months 1 week ago

Stuart, thanks for the compliment.

Your premise, “the Catholic Schools were central to the development and maintenance of the Catholic Parish”, which I do not believe to be historically accurate, if true, is a frightening indictment of Catholic evangelization.

An anecdote, if I may. I have a friend, the pastor of a parish without a school attached. It pleases him to no end. None of the money worries, or any of the other hassles that come with responsibility for a school. However, he does have a huge athletic and activities center in the parish. That is what keeps the children and their parents attached to the parish.

In either situation, school or activities center, what does that say to us about our evangelization of our Catholic population? Are we faithful Catholics for the schools and the sports centers? Or because we believe in the Faith! We should not be relying on parental involvement as the glue to parish vitality and survival.

I suggest that our forebears were coerced into creating schools because the Bishops wanted to inculcate Catholic loyalty and perhaps defeat political enmity in those immigrant days. Given our current parish population losses, I am not so sure they were so successful. There are a host of reasons why the pews have emptied. Schools are the least of them vis-à-vis evangelization. Or maybe because of them, if one takes a cynical point of view on how the schools were operated when I was a student!

If anything, the hierarchical structure of the Church, internalized and imitated by parish pastors, probably is the greatest detriment to parish vitality and survival. Lay activism in parishes is handicapped by many pastors. Sometimes you need to let parishioners tell you what they want to do, what they like to do.

I also believe that the social dimension of parishes in many instances is totally ignored. Whether homogenous or diverse, there needs to be a pastoral effort to link the people of parishes together in a variety of social situations and events. ( I regularly attend the same parish Mass every Sunday morning. I sit nearby the same people each Sunday. They don't know my name. I don't know theirs. I wish that the celebrant started each Mass with a "Reach out and introduce yourselves to your fellow parishioner!" ) That helps to build parish unity and vitality. I remember as a child in a NYC parish where certain parish priests walked the neighborhood, encountering and talking to people. But I ramble on too much now. You get my point, I believe.

Stuart Meisenzahl
5 months ago

Vince
The original goal of the American Catholic School system was not to build strong parishes but it most certainly was the glue that grew those parishes and bound the parish community together. Once this effect was recognized by the Bishops, they were quick to adopt a policy of the school first ,the church facility later.
It is easily demonstrated that the subsequent closing of the schools presaged the decline of the sponsoring parish community.
No parent of a Catholic School child thought about going to church in another parish . When the school closed a very tight bond was broken.
Social interaction is essential to the survival and growth of any community......it defines the word community
Having schools or athletic centers provide a focal point to attract, support, and reinforce the community is hardly a critique of the community religious values or their origins. You seem to think we can have a healthy church community by acknowledging ordinary and necesssary human emotions and social needs but then you demean the need for physical locations for this socialization to be expressed or that such facilities are necessary magnets to cause people to congregate in the first instance. The essence of the Church is in fact community worship. Such community worship needs facilities and occasions other than just Sunday mass to create a thriving cohesive community. Catholic communities are not just Sunday Communities in a church.....
The missionaries of old (and today ) did not arrive with just a Bible and religious symbols. They came with medicines, gifts of all kinds, music to enchant, clothing etc. These items were not Sunday Mass items. The use of such items recognized everyday normal human emotions and incentives. That does not make these tools unfit for a missionary's use.
You posit a fear for evangelization that relied on such mundane events and "fear for it", whereas I believe it reflects a full understanding of basic human needs. Hence my comment that parents were incentivized to socialize and grow their parish loyalty out of the desire and need to support their children's education.
Catholic communities are just human communities with all the needs, incentives and requirements for reinforcement of that any human community requires. Evangelization is a human product with a human goal...a community goal

Stuart Meisenzahl
5 months ago

Vince
Omitted repeat of the above

Barry Fitzpatrick
5 months ago

As pointed out decades ago by Cardinal Hickey in Washington, vouchers for Catholic schools are the beginning of a slippery slope for those desiring a Catholic education for their children. Public monies often bring with them oversight by government agencies who have no clue as to our mission or the delivery of that mission to the students. There is good reason to steer clear of this suggested partnership and continue to seek new and creative ways to keep the flame alive in our Catholic schools. The Catholic educational system was never intended to be a refuge for a public school system that parents deem unacceptable for their children. The mission is what distinguishes these schools from all the rest, and the positioning of Jesus Christ at the center of that mission marks the system of schools indelibly with a character foreign to our counterparts in education.

Perhaps it is time for a forum of financial experts to assess the long term viability of Catholic schools, diocese by diocese, using ALL resources available including real estate and for-profit accounts and development that can assist the schools with much needed capital for planning and sustained growth. Give to Caesar what is his, leave God to take care of the rest.

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