What Trump's call for vouchers could mean for Catholic schools

Students from various schools in the Diocese of Nashville, Tenn., provide music during a Mass on Feb. 1in celebration of Catholic Schools Week. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register) Students from various schools in the Diocese of Nashville, Tenn., provide music during a Mass on Feb. 1in celebration of Catholic Schools Week. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

Fans of Catholic education were no doubt cheered to hear President Donald J. Trump’s shout out for school choice last night. Though details were lacking, Mr. Trump told Congress during his address on Feb. 28, "I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them."

Beyond the president’s endorsement, many other signs—the pro-voucher pedigree of newly minted Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos not least among them—indicate a vast new national arena for school voucher programs may be about to open. Voucher experiments have previously been restricted to children in low-scoring, high poverty districts, but what the president appears to prefer is a “let the money follow the student” approach for all U.S. schoolchildren that could revolutionize—or ruin, depending on your perspective—public education in America.

“I’d like to tweet, ‘Vouchers are killer; they’re the best’ or ‘Vouchers are sad!’” That may be easy to do in the “tweet world,” but in the real world, vouchers offer a complicated landscape to consider.

Throwing something of a damper on the voucher enthusiasm is a string of recent studies that have cast doubt on the impact at the individual level of choice experiments. Students who have left public schools, voucher in hand, for charter, private and religious schools have fared slightly worse than peers, according to these studies.

One report looking at outcomes in Ohio was published last summer by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, generally a reliably pro-voucher public policy think tank. Students who use vouchers to attend private schools “fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” Fordham Institute researchers found, especially in math. “Such impacts also appear to persist over time,” the study reports, “suggesting that the results are not driven simply by the setbacks that typically accompany any change of school.”

Many caveats apply to the significance of this report and others like it, voucher supporters are quick to argue.

Daniel Hungerman is an associate professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame who has been looking at the impact of voucher programs on Catholic schools and parishes. “Pretty underwhelming” was his assessment of recent student outcomes at voucher-backed schools.

He told America, however, that other studies suggest that one collateral expectation of a switch to vouchers is indeed proving true in the real world. While students at voucher-supported schools may be faring slightly worse or no better than the kids who stayed behind in the public system, outcomes at those public schools appear to be ticking up, perhaps in response to the voucher-generated competition as school children “vote with their feet.”

Prof. Hungerman’s research has uncovered a different area of concern related to school choice programs. “On the one hand, it looks like vouchers can improve a church’s finances and help keep a school and a parish open, but we do see a decline in religious activity,” he said, including drooping donation levels from registered members as voucher windfalls begin to dominate parish programming and planning. Voucher dependency can be a worry.

He hastened to add, however, that his report, like the others, does not lend itself easily to a “simple tweetable conclusion.”

“I’d like to tweet, ‘Vouchers are killer; they’re the best’ or ‘Vouchers are sad!’” That may be easy to do in the “tweet world,” Hungerman said, but in the real world, vouchers offer a complicated landscape to consider.

“Vouchers might be able to help some struggling schools; they might be able to help some struggling families and students; they might be able to help some struggling churches.” But many programs, he said, come with significant strings attached, and voucher efforts can have unintended consequences, including “in the pews.”

“That doesn’t mean that churches should never try vouchers,” he said, “but they should be aware of all the possible effects when they do.”

For now, what Prof. Hungerman is willing to say with certainty is that more study is required before anyone can feel confident firing off a “sad” or “great” tweet about the impact of vouchers.

Lisa Weber
3 months 3 weeks ago

Thanks for a good article. Money with strings attached is not exactly free.

Derrick Weiller
3 months 3 weeks ago

Tax dollars must never fund religious education.
Let The Faithful pony up as befits their religious commitments.

J Cosgrove
3 months 3 weeks ago

The government has supported religious education before with great success for everyone. They still do in certain ways. There is no reason why it could not happen again.

The massive support for religious education schools was called the GI Bill and after WWII billions of dollars went to individuals as they chose religious schools. (Back then Catholic colleges really were Catholic as opposed to day where they are not very Catholic at all) There were even occasions where the GI Bill was used to subsidize education for the ministry and priesthood.

The so called separation of Church and State is not part of the constitution as several states had official religions at the start of the country. It came about after WWII . Church/State separation was due to a KKK supreme court appointment (Hugo Black) by Roosevelt who hated Catholics and after WWII wanted to prevent funds going to parochial schools. The ruling limited funds to such things as subsidizing bus transportation to and from schools and this subsidizing is still in effect in most states.

Any suggestion that funds from the public could not be used by Catholics for Catholic schools are bogus. There is a history of such programs with very positive outcomes.

Derrick Weiller
3 months 3 weeks ago

1a) The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 supported Secondary, College, and Vocational/Tech Education.
The risk of indoctrination was nil.
1b) K-8 education is extremely vulnerable to indoctrination. This cannot be risked.

2) I tentatively accept your assertion that GI Bill financed seminary-type education. But post-war circumstances were extraordinary, and demanded extraordinary redress. They may not be extended to 2017.

3) Unless you can provide compelling documentation for your assertion that a) Catholic Universities were "more religious" between 1944 and 1954 than they are today; and b) that they were sufficiently "more religious" as to qualify as institutions of religious instruction (e.g., seminaries), your assertion must be dismissed as fatuous.

4) Readers of your comment may safely dismiss it pending a satisfactory response to Point 3 (above).

Thomas Farrelly
3 months 3 weeks ago

I have never found any of Mr. Cosgrove's comments fatuous. Certainly his assertions ring true to anyone who went to a Catholic college between 1944 and 1954, as I did. Your own comments appear pretty fatuous to this reader.

Derrick Weiller
3 months 3 weeks ago

Thomas Farrelli:
"...ring true" is not compelling documentation.

Stuart Meisenzahl
3 months 3 weeks ago

Derrick
Check the syllabus for any Jesuit Catholic College in the 50's and early sixties.....compulsory theology and compulsory Thomastic Philosphy each semester for four years. I attended a Jesuit College during that period. These four year requirements are no longer the case except in dedicated college divinity schools. At the Jesuit College I attended all compulsory theology and philosophy have been discontinued except for two semesters as compared to the 16 semester requirement I experienced in the 50's and 60's ( 2 semester year systems).
In addition all Jesuit College dormitories in the 50s and 60s had compulsory attendance at Mass two days per week....not including Sunday....and physical attendance records were kept with restriction to campus if not met. These requirements have all been abolished.
Your unwillingness to accept others personal experience on this point is arbitrary and self serving. These changes in Jesuit College curriculum are more than ample evidence of the original point concerning the increased secularization of "catholic colleges" after the heyday of the GI Bill

Gabriel Fundora
3 months 3 weeks ago

1) Indoctrination was not something brought up in the reply, even so, where is your evidence to support the assertion that the risk of indoctrination was nil for college kids or extreme for K-12 kids? What's more indoctrinating, the government telling you that you must send you child to a secular public school, or the government giving you a voucher to send your child wherever you want, secular or religious?

2) again, a conclusory assertion. Why can't these circumstances be extended to 2017?

3) Instead of us all being pedantic, let's try and look at the reality that we live in a post-christian world. The fact is that there is less religion in the zeitgeist than there was in the 40's. Back then the government, generally, did not have a problem with one choosing to obtain a religious education. Now, some in the government do.

4) Can we just be friends?

Derrick Weiller
3 months 3 weeks ago

Gabriel:
1) Concern with religious indoctrination underlies resistance to tax-funded religious schooling.

2) Surely, you concede that children are especially vulnerable to indoctrination.

3) I leave it to your good common sense to acknowledge the difference between immediately post-war 1944 and 2017. Dismiss the difference if you must.

J Cosgrove
3 months 3 weeks ago

Interesting response/comment. Very revealing.

I do not know when it stopped but I bet you any attendee of a Jesuit college into thr 1970's had on their transcript each year 4 credits of religion courses and 4 courses of what was essentially Thomistic philosophy used to under pin Catholicism. These were required of all students even non-Catholics but there were few non-Catholics in the school.

All classes began with a prayer and if the professor was not Catholic a student led the prayer. There were even times when we were herded into Mass as a class. So I can say that readers should evaluate your comment accordingly.

So religion and associated philosophy was almost as much as my major which was mathematics. Point me to any Catholic school in the country that requires that today or in the last 30 years.

By the way college students are subject to indoctrination almost as much as grade school and high school. It is amazing what a lot of them believe especially with the lopsided preponderance of liberal professors.

Derrick Weiller
3 months 3 weeks ago

Stuart:
We must distinguish between Education and Indoctrination.
A solid grounding in Philosophy and Theology within the context of a 120 unit university degree makes for sound education. Eight years of Baltimore catechism makes for indoctrination.

J Cosgrove
3 months 3 weeks ago

I never learned anything specific in my Jesuit courses on religion that I did not already know from my high school, which was Christian Brothers, and grade school, a series of Sr. Eileen Dolores clones, on back to first grade. Probably an exaggeration since there is always something new to learn. Maybe I learned some specific history of the Church in college but that is all that I can remember that was unique. If anything it was the overall atmosphere of the Catholic way of living in grade school that permeated each day which I found life forming. Listening to some hyper critical Jesuits who seemed to take pleasure in putting students down obviously had some effect but not on basic religious formation. I never found love with the Jesuits but I did find it with several of the Christian Brothers in high school and most of the nuns as a kid (I did have a couple very strict nuns.)

Actually I did learn something in a religion course in college that was new and has been a bedrock for me every day but it wasn't from the Jesuits. It was in spite of them. We had an assignment to write a paper on the three foundations of the Catholic Church. That was it. No one in the class knew what the professor meant. So oft I went to the library and researched the topic as best as one could prior to computers, the foundations of the Catholic Church. After reading several reference works, I came to the conclusion that the basis for the Catholic Church was, 1) there is a God; 2) Jesus is God; and 3) Jesus founded a Church. I wrote a long paper of which I was very proud, with lots of footnote references and for my efforts got a C. After we had turned in the papers, the Jesuit said the three foundations of the Catholic Church were Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again. On my paper beneath the red C was a note which said interesting but not the topic.

I thought I had been had because I thought my reasons were better but we repeat each Sunday what were his and not mine. But the work on that paper was transformative and has enabled me to justify the Catholic Church to others ever since.

So I do not agree that college religious training is more important and that those who go through 8 years of grade school. I definitely would not call it indoctrination unless one thinks it is bogus which I do not. I have seen the positive effect on too many kids of which too large a number gave up their religion but essentially act as decent Christians. But their kids will not get the same.

But back to the original point, the government extracts money from all of us, and vouchers are just one way of getting some of it back. The education one wants for the family is received using that money. It is not like its their money. It comes from the people so they are just using part of what they are paying in.

Stuart Meisenzahl
3 months 2 weeks ago

Derrick
Unless you had a different breed of Jesuits teaching you there were still "right" and "wrong " answers on the Theology and Philosophy exams. No different than knowing the right answer on the Baltimore Cathechism test in grammar school. Ditto for Jesuit high school courses (where the textbooks all had Jesuit authors!) I could easily argue to you that having to put down the accepted "right answer" constitutes indoctrination.

I appreciate the courses I had in theology and philosophy but I am under no illusion as to their purpose.....it was not a sound education per se but rather sound education AS A CATHOLIC. The courses in high school and grammar school were designed with the same purpose.
As for your "put down" of the repetitive regurgitation in grammar school of the Catechism as indoctrination , the same could be said for the grammar school repetition of the multiplication tables, the "spelling exercises", etc As the phrase goes "Repetition is the mother of all learning".
Your simply chosing to distinguish it as "indoctrination" vs "education" does not make it so.

J Cosgrove
3 months 2 weeks ago

The use of the term "indoctrination" is part of the knee jerk liberal response to Trump's education plans. So in a way this criticism using the word "indoctrination" is a form of left wing indoctrination of anyone using the term to criticize vouchers.

Charles Erlinger
3 months 3 weeks ago

Thinking about Catholic parochial and diocesan schools as essentially government contractors, which is not an impossible outcome if the enthusiasm with which the various voucher proposals are being greeted by some both among the hierarchy and at the parish level, should give pause to Catholics who can think strategically about the current and future environment. Just observe the situation that institutions of higher learning, hospital systems and all kinds of social service agencies are in. Funding variations from one political season to the next whipsaw financial planners and managers to the point that strategic planning in any meaningful sense is all but impossible. Research programs, capital plans and staffing initiatives turn out to be fanciful even on a one year basis, much less a five year or longer basis. Ask any hospital executive who has attempted serious financial planning on the basis of the expected requirements and promises of the ACA.

Then, in terms of parochial institutions in particular, look at the ambiguous outcomes of voucher experiences to date, some of which have been reported in this article. It is time to look at this from the point of view of the basic mission and explicitly enunciated policy objectives that the parish and the diocese adopt. If the basic mission of a parochial school is to survive, or to insure the survival of the parish of which it is a ministry, regardless of the Catholicity of the surviving entities, then perhaps the pursuit of voucher financing will be a rational and useful choice. If, on the other hand, there is an enunciated end-state desired and expected from the parochial school ministry which has something do with the combination of first-class intellectual development combined with inculcation of Catholic moral values and faith convictions, then it might be right to do everything possible to persevere as any ministry must, in the end, trusting in Providence and working to the best of our abilities and digging deeper into our combined resources to achieve our goals. The resolve of Catholics and other sympathetic donors could well be a more dependable basis on which to proceed, than the dubious promise, with its unpredictable outcome, of vouchers.

Derrick Weiller
3 months 3 weeks ago

Charles Erlinger:
Your comment is a model of cogent, incisive, compelling discourse on the matter of vouchers. You have done this debate a grand service.
Thank you.

Joseph J Dunn
3 months 3 weeks ago

While I understand the enthusiasm of some, that vouchers might be the financial salvation of some parochial or other private religious schools, we need to keep in mind the broader social goal of making a decent primary and secondary education (a Constitutional right under Brown v. Bd of Ed, 1954) available to all. In too many cities, and some rural areas, the public school system is performing poorly, at least in specific schools. Vouchers can give a caring parent the financial means to seek an alternative for their child. As Catholics, we ought to support that prerogative for the greater good of our fellow citizens, even if religiously-affiliated schools are not eligible. (Though the courts seem willing, in recent cases, to find vouchers not in conflict with the Establishment Clause.)
One common argument against vouchers or charter schools is that such programs 'take money from the public schools, to the detriment of those who stay in the public schools.' Interesting, but this implies a right of the state (or the school district) to a de facto monopoly on children's education and whatever funding is needed for that. That concept needs to be dismissed, with a recognition that the parent is the prime educator of the child. Where the school or district is chronically failing, a parent needs an alternative to opt out, and a reasonable allowance to do so, if their natural right as parent or their Constitutional right as citizen is to have meaning.
There is an interesting passage on page 33 of the cited Fordham Institute study:
"It may be the case that those attending the poorest-performing public schools would have had very different performance effects than those attending the relatively well-performing public schools. Therefore, these comparisons may not be generalizable to the full set of public schools. It is certainly possible that children coming from worse-performing public schools to the private schools under the EdChoice program might have had considerably better outcomes; that said, we have no way of credibly investigating this possibility using existing data." So, it is entirely possible that the Ohio program, and others like it, afford precisely this alternative for those most in need of it.

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