This week, as millions of Americans celebrate National School Choice Week, The Cardinal Newman Society interviewed proponents of school choice solutions that support Catholic schools to discuss financial challenges facing Catholic families, and programs that could aid future generations in accessing Catholic education.
In many dioceses, school choice is an increasingly important issue because it allows Catholic schools to maintain affordability and families to choose Catholic education for their children. Without school choice programs, parents are burdened with paying public school taxes and additional tuition if they want their children to attend private schools. This week alone, 16,140 school choice events are taking place across the country, according to the website for National School Choice Week, which includes participation from 13,224 schools and 808 homeschool groups.
“Our experience in the United States over many generations has been that Catholic education is a great assistance to families in the formation of children in the faith and quality education,” Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Neb., told the Newman Society. “We have learned how to operate excellent schools and our students learn everything they need to know to be good citizens and to use their gifts in productive ways for the common good.”
Catholic schools offer unique moral formation, especially in today’s society, because “legal restraints and prevailing trends in culture” have stifled many public schools from being able “to teach or have a discussion about values that are strictly important to us in the Catholic faith,” Archbishop Lucas noted. “These values often revolve around the nature and dignity of the human person and God’s plan for human life, human sexuality and marriage.”
Frank Russo, president of the American Family Association of New York and a school choice advocate for 40 years, told the Newman Society that public schools have changed drastically over the last 50 years, with promotion of same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception becoming more commonplace. “If you’re a parent who is concerned about the kind of sexual activity that’s approved of in the public schools, or you worry about what kinds of values the schools are implementing, you should have a right to choose a different school.”
“The future development of a large percentage of children is being harmed by the fact that many parents cannot afford to pay a double cost to send their children to a private or religious school,” said Russo.
Many Catholic schools rely heavily on charity and generosity to stay afloat. “It takes money to provide a quality Catholic education,” Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, told the Newman Society. “Funding gaps must be made up through fundraising, parish subsidies and other means.”
Moreover, lower and middle-income families often suffer disproportionately from a lack of school choice. “Why should more affluent families have sole access to a Catholic school simply because they can afford the tuition?” asked Rigg. “This issue becomes more acute when there are no quality public schools in the area. Education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty, and children of all income levels need and deserve a good school.”
“Families of all backgrounds deserve a faith-based education,” Rigg continued. “We teach nothing less than the goodness and truth of Christ in our schools. We cannot and should not allow finances to stand in the way of this vital evangelizing mission.”
“Catholic parishes and schools are very interested in reaching out to families that may be less well-off materially, but who can benefit from a partnership with the Catholic school,” agreed Archbishop Lucas. “How to find the funds to make that possible is a challenge.”
This is where school choice programs come in, said Rigg. These programs “offer an extremely promising way of overcoming the financialobstacles that often prevent families from joining our schools. Nationalstudies have shown that affordability is the top reason why more families donot enroll in Catholic schools, or leave midway through their educationaljourney.”
School choice advocates promote a variety of options, the feasibility of which vary state by state. Tax vouchers, education savings accounts and tax credits are all potential measures that could substantially empower parents by granting authentic school choice for their children.
In Ohio — where Rigg previously served as superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati — “families benefit from two voucher programs, two separate special needs scholarships and subsidized transportation,” said Rigg. “Schools can access funding for textbooks and student services, as well as reimbursements for administrative costs.” As a result “school choice is thriving in Ohio.”
Russo called education savings accounts “an ideal solution” to increase school choice. Education savings account programs allow the government to set aside a certain amount of money that parents can access for education-related costs, such as private school tuition or textbooks. However, opponents of these programs cite discriminatory, historically anti-Catholic, provisions of state constitutions as barring governments from enacting such measures.
Blaine Amendments, found in 37 state constitutions, threaten the implementation of school choice programs across the country by prohibiting government aid to religious, or “sectarian,” schools. They were born out of the anti-Catholic bigotry sweeping the nation in the 19th century. The Newman Society has reported on recent court challenges involving state Blaine Amendments in Colorado, Missouri, Montana and Nevada. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to take up the Missouri case this year, and will decide whether to take the Colorado case next month.
Russo noted that a number of school choice measures, such as education savings accounts, do not provide direct aid from the government to a religious school, but instead provide money to parents and students, who can then make informed decisions on how to utilize their education savings account.
Russo also told the Newman Society that school choice has a positive economic impact on education because it encourages competition between schools, buoying overall school improvement.
“Quality choice in schools improves instruction in all educational settings,” Rigg agreed. “A rising tide lifts all boats!” And from his experience as superintendent in Cincinnati, “school choice programs directly benefitted our students, particularly those from lower income brackets or with defined special needs.”
The vital role that parents play in educating their children is also honored through school choice programs, Archbishop Lucas told the Newman Society. “From the perspective of the Church, we see school choice as supporting the parental responsibility to provide the best education possible for the children that God has entrusted to them,” he said.
Dignitatis Humanae, the Church’s declaration on religious freedom issued by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1965, contains one of many Church references to the educative role of the family:
The family, since it is a society in its own original right, has the right freely to live its own domestic religious life under the guidance of parents. Parents, moreover, have the right to determine, in accordance with their own religious beliefs, the kind of religious education that their children are to receive. Government, in consequence, must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education, and the use of this freedom of choice is not to be made a reason for imposing unjust burdens on parents, whether directly or indirectly.
“God gives parents the responsibility to be the primary educators and formers of their children’s faith,” Archbishop Lucas concurred. “Parents should be able to consider the best option for their children’s whole education and formation — not simply in academic subjects, but in the formation of the whole person to mature adulthood.”
As varying school choice programs continue to be proposed across the country, Archbishop Lucas reminded Catholics that sacrifice is an integral part of Catholic education.
“We know that our schools have always run on sacrifice,”said Archbishop Lucas. “For generations, that sacrifice was primarily the religious sisters, brothers and priests who staffed our schools and gave their lives to education. Today, a different kind of sacrifice is required. Our teachers often make a sacrifice to teach in Catholic schools at a lower level of salary.” These sacrifices are what continue to sustain Catholic education to this day.
“Our current task is to educate the general public on the value of nonpublic schools in our states and the importance of respecting parental rights so that parents can make a conscientious decision on whether their child will benefit from a nonpublic or religious school, and then have the opportunity to make their decision financially feasible,” said Archbishop Lucas.
“It’s important that legislators hear from members of the public about their interest in this issue,” he urged. Additionally, most parishes with schools attached have opportunities for laypeople to contribute to scholarships for families who cannot otherwise afford it.
“Children only have one chance at their education, especially when they’re young, and if they’re in a school where they’re not flourishing academically or spiritually, forcing them to continue in that environment would be unjust when there are viable options that could be available with material support from others,” said Archbishop Lucas.
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