Catholic schools, religious education and a free society

In addition to National School Choice Week, this has also been Catholic Schools Week, and publications around the country are taking a closer look at the impact school choice programs are having on Catholic education.

The National Catholic Register, for example, talks to clergy and Catholic educators in Florida and elsewhere about how vouchers and tax credit scholarships are giving Catholic schools a new way to reach disadvantaged students and reverse the tide of declining enrollment.

In the Catholic publication CruxRamona Denmark describes how her children are thriving in a Tampa Bay-area ACE Academy, even though they haven’t been raised as Catholics.

“By having a common denominator, which is God,” she writes, “people can see past their differences and other barriers.”

The Florida Catholic, meanwhile, takes an in-depth look at Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which is administered by scholarship organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. The newspaper interviews Rudy Diaz, who says the scholarships make a Catholic education affordable for large working families that couldn’t otherwise afford tuition for all their children.

As a parent and a teacher, Diaz described a stark contrast between the Catholic schools his children now attend and the zoned public schools. While he admitted that public schools might have more resources and academics are par with other school choices, it is the important intangibles that put Newman and St. Juliana above their public counterparts. The Catholic school environment inspires students to avoid distractions, stay focused and understand the importance of a good work ethic. Diaz knows that for certain in the case of Cardinal Newman, because he used to be a member of its faculty. He said teaching there versus teaching in a public school level is like “night and day.”

“In any school there are values and virtues that are learned by osmosis, just by the students noticing each other’s behavior,” said Diaz, who added those virtues and values can be negative at public schools but are positive at Catholic schools, especially his children’s schools because “they take their faith seriously.”

Some people might bristle at the idea that public programs should be built to give families access to schools that “take their faith seriously.” Organizations that oppose private school choice programs often argue that they run counter to democratic ideals and the idea of separation of church and state.

Courts have ruled such programs can be a permissible part of a “broader undertaking by the State to enhance the educational options” available to children.

Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent of a group of New York Catholic schools and Common Core watcher at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, grapples with this issue in light of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s renewed push for education tax credits, which could be a boon to religious schools in that state. She argues a vibrant, pluralistic system of parochial schools that’s available to families of all backgrounds can strengthen our democracy.

Of course, for some people the idea of a public policy that provides any tax relief for supporters of religious schools is a third rail. They conjure up a vision of religion being forced on children or of the American ideal of “education for democracy” withering away.

But that not only represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the roots of American public education, it also ignores the reality of the debate. Rather than a choice between keeping religion in or out of our schools, it is really a debate about whether we should have a single state-sanctioned perspective on the values taught in schools or a plurality of approaches from which parents can choose.

Her argument, steeped in the history of parental rights and American public education, is worth reading in full.