Changing Perceptions of Private Religious Schools: Public Money and Public Trust in the Education of Children

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Public perception of the private religious school affords the necessary subtext for the debate about emerging law and policy regarding parental choice in the education of children. Perception is the foundation of trust. An elementary or secondary school is more than a training ground for developing skills or assimilating the fundamentals of a prescribed secular curriculum. It is also a haven, a protected place where society's most important personal and common values can be seen and emulated. Parents must trust the school of their choice. Similarly, for a school to become a repository of major public expenditures and oversight, the public must vest more than a guarded confidence in its integrity.

The intractable problem of racial segregation and white flight has left not only the inner cities, but also vast rural areas,1 with public schools so underfinanced, insecure, violent, and failing, that the need to support parents in their ability to educate their children has reached a point of desperation. Nothing else seems to work.2 The various voucher systems are tentative steps to provide support so that parents may make choices absolutely vital to their well-being, to say nothing of their rights as citizens to equal educational opportunities for their children.

Fundamental to a viable system of educational choice even partially funded by tax-paid tuition and fee assistance is that the schools will provide all students an equal and genuine secular education. The schools must be untainted by improper financial motives, ideological bias or an exclusionary elitism. I leave the interpretation of the law and the Supreme Court's calculus of the risk to Professor Laycock.3 I will put into context a necessary perception of the schools themselves. Can religious elementary and secondary schools be trusted sufficiently by parents and the public to receive tuition vouchers in return for providing not only a "genuine" educational experience,4 but also for providing these educational opportunities to the poor without a religious bias? Indeed, can this great new undertaking be accomplished in cooperation with the public-school systems and not in competition with their indispensable role in our society? Since the Catholic schools systems are the largest faith-based private educational alternatives in most of the country I will concentrate there.5

A brief review of some Catholic educational programs shows that these institutions receive support from, and benefit, Catholic and non-Catholic students alike. Catholic educational initiatives being studied for their financing today in Washington, D.C.6 and New York7 to serve the mission to the poor, include also the concept of charter schools or even resurrecting the image of the 19th century French academy, the lycée, to gain surplus income to use for the support of the parish schools.8 Changing inner-city demographics have constrained Oakland, California, to close ten of eighteen parochial schools originally parish-supported.9 Four of the ten are now charter schools administered by the public school system. Of the remaining eight, some part of the educational cost is borne by parental payment of tuition and fees.10 In the inner-cities, a major part of the school population comes from non-Catholic families.11 The diocese contributes a large part to the cost of this education in the parochial schools.

There is no question that schools receiving tax-funded vouchers will be open to the public, where possible, and will serve as many students as possible without regard to religious affiliation and free of the danger of proselytism. Does the public want to use these schools to meet the present educational crisis? In the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty: "perception is everything, because there is not one of our ideas or one of our reflexions which does not carry a date, whose objective reality exhausts its formal reality, or which transcends time."12

The voucher system is a secular concept with secular roots. …