The Catholic schools superintendent for the Archdiocese of New York is concerned about conflicts with Catholic identity in the Catholic schools that participate in New York City’s pre-kindergarten program, but he also sees benefits to their participation.
Responding to President Barack Obama’s request, in his State of the Union address on January 28, to make high-quality early education available for every four year-old, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have taken steps to implement the Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) program.
The Archdiocese of New York has been enthusiastic about the program, which utilizes taxpayer funds to provide free pre-kindergarten classes. In the 2013-14 academic year, 47 Catholicschools in New York City had UPK programs.
But the program is raising church-state conflicts and Catholic identity concerns in participating Catholic schools, where religious instruction and even religious symbols are not permitted in the areas used by the “publicly-funded prekindergarten students,” reports The New York Times.
Some religious institutions are reportedly opting not to participate, especially Jewish Orthodox schools, due to the program’s expectations. According to the Times: “The biblical story of Noah’s Ark will be taught, without mention of who told Noah to build it …Some crucifixes will be removed, but others left hanging.”
Dr. Timothy McNiff, schools superintendent for the Archdiocese, told The Cardinal Newman Society that the situation is “lamentable.” He noted, however, that “UPK families who want age-appropriate Catholic religious instruction for their children have other options for their children outside of the UPK classroom.” He cited parish programs andother Church and school “wrap-around” programs that continue after the publicly-funded UPK classes.
Dr. McNiff also sees a hidden benefit in the program, as around 60 percent of students reportedly stay on for kindergarten and first-grade programs at the Catholic schools. And the UPK programs are not entirely absent of faithful instruction, as the opportunity remains, he said, “to teach about values, prayer, and universal religion” and go deeper in the wrap-around programs afterward.
In 2004, as the State of Florida considered similar public funding for pre-K classes, Larry Keough of the Florida Catholic Conference raised church-state concerns:
I ask each of you: How would the state react if it ascertained that providers utilized educational strategies for 4-year-old children by having them recite nursery rhymes to music in a religious play or program that enhances phonemic awareness, choral reading, speech and language, short and long-term memory, and self-esteem?
If the state were to determine through their newfound authority in the Governor’s draft that this type of program was not acceptable, that decision would compromise the religious mission of the program, impact the provider’s academic program and in doing so, likely cause excessive entanglement. Please remember that inculcating religion in the curriculum is not just a simple matter of teaching religion outside of the UPK 3.0 or 4.0 hour day. Religion permeates the curriculum.
No Catholic school is required to participate in New York’s UPK program, but each school must meet the UPK standards if it accepts public funding and is accepted into the program.
Dr. McNiff believes that the expanding pre-kindergarten programs “help schools to meet the needs of the community, especially among those families who cannot afford traditional pre-K programs. Demand is high, and we are happy to be serving as many children as possible.”
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