Church Links Justice, School Choice: Leaders in US Catholic Schools Say Parents Should Be Able to Choose Children's Education, Regardless of Financial Status

By Bourbon, Julie | National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2018 | Go to article overview

Church Links Justice, School Choice: Leaders in US Catholic Schools Say Parents Should Be Able to Choose Children's Education, Regardless of Financial Status


Bourbon, Julie, National Catholic Reporter


Many consider school vouchers a means of leveling the educational playing field for children, especially those from low- or middle-income families, or from communities with under-resourced or failing public schools.

School choice or parental choice are the umbrella terms for state and federal programs (such as vouchers) that provide financial incentives for parents who seek an alternative to their local public school. For Catholics, especially, that term is inextricably linked to mission.

"From a Catholic school perspective, it's been embraced and welcomed primarily because of what I call mission fit: Catholic social teaching, the preferential option for the poor, making opportunities available for families who can't afford it, and making parents primary educators again," said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association and a former superintendent of schools in the dioceses of Richmond, Virginia, and Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.

"What school is the best fit for that family's values and child's needs shouldn't be determined by zip code," Elcesser added, "but by the parent and what will be the best opportunity for success."

About 450,000 children in the U.S. receive some sort of federal or state funding to attend the school of their choice. Studies show that 85 percent of voucher recipients attend schools that are religiously affiliated, with a plurality of those schools being Catholic. About 18 percent of Catholic school students do not identify as Catholic.

"Our mission is to serve the poor," said Presentation Sr. Dale McDonald, director of public policy at the National Catholic Educational Association. "They sort out the doctrinal differences themselves."

Or as the late Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, DC, said, "We educate those hungry for knowledge... not because they're Catholic, but because we're Catholic."

John Schoenig, senior director of teacher formation and education policy at the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education, is a supporter of parental choice as integral to Catholic practice.

"The fundamental belief of ours is that parents are the primary educators" of children, he said. "It's the birthright of every family, to choose the best education for their kids. The state should empower parents [to make that choice]. Should that be an education in the faith, then so be it."

There are currently 51 school choice programs in 26 states plus the District of Columbia, according to Schoenig, although that number also depends on how the programs are defined and who's doing the counting. Just how many students use a voucher or other means to attend Catholic schools is difficult to pin down because each state administers its programs differently

What is not up for dispute is that Catholic schools are losing students, at a rate of about 1.5 percent to 2 percent each year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. About 1.8 million students currently attend 6,429 Catholic schools, down from a peak in the early 1960s of just over 5 million students in nearly 13,000 schools.

A variety of factors account for this shift:

* Lay teachers cost more than members of religious congregations, leading to higher tuition--an average of $4,400 this year for elementary schools and $9,800 for high schools, not including uniforms, books and other expenses, according to the the association.

* Society is more secularized.

* The sex-abuse scandal has driven some Catholics from the pews.

* More educational options exist now than ever before.

This has led some to ask whether Catholics are promoting vouchers as a way to get students back into parish schools. The truth, say those who support school choice, is more complicated than that. At the heart of the matter are issues of doctrine, distributive justice and human dignity. …

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