Tomorrow, the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, where I am a visiting fellow, will host a symposium on tuition tax credits for parochial schools. The event, which is co-sponsored with the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, will feature two panels addressing different aspects of the issue, from how to shape public opinion and pass legislation, to the profound effect Catholic schools have in the lives of those they serve. Cardinal Donald Wuerl will give the keynote address and the event will conclude with Mass. It is not too late to register which you can do by clicking here (we are keeping the registration open even at this late date due to the Thanksgiving holiday) and I encourage anyone with an interest in Catholic education to attend.
I am a convert on the issue of tuition tax credits and other means for funding Catholic education. I grew up in a household that was deeply opposed. My mother was a lifelong member of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) and its national affiliate. My uncle, who lived across the street, was the chairman of the CEA’s political action committee. One of my oldest and dearest friends is Bob Chase, who is a past President of the National Education Association. I was a precocious child, but even I lacked the precocity to stand up to the opinion of such an array of formative figures!
In addition, I attended pretty good public schools growing up. We did not have to worry about over-crowded classrooms: My high school served three towns and we had a graduating class of 49. The school was well-funded by the taxpayers and I had some very good teachers, as well as some not so good teachers. I am still terrible at math and science, but our Spanish and French teachers were great. Nonetheless, I would have been woefully under-prepared for college had I not taken Latin privately from a tutor, a wonderful woman who taught me more than Latin and, most of all, taught me that there is no human activity more enjoyable than sitting down and reading a good book.
The political debate over public funding of parochial schools was, and is, paradigmatic in that it involves two groups of well meaning people talking past each other. Even though I now support public efforts to fund parochial schools, I continue to be repulsed by the argument that parochial schools create competition for public schools. There are certain things in the life of a nation that are too important to be subjected to market analysis. We do not have two Defense Departments, “competing” to see who can do a better job protecting America. In any competition, someone loses, and in education, our children are too precious to be relegated to the role of “loser” just so that we can justify an abstract argument about the goodness of competition.
On the other hand, no children should have to lose because of abstract concerns about taking away resources from the public schools. The main reason I changed positions on this issue was that I spoke with parents who lived near me in the District of Columbia. For them, sending their children to public schools was not an option because those schools were a failure. We need not concern ourselves here with why those schools are failing – and the schools themselves cannot be expected to save a neighborhood that is drowning in poverty and drugs and violence – but we do have to favor any alternative that promises to rescue children. This is what Catholic schools in the inner city do: They rescue children from failing schools. They do not rescue all children and they probably couldn’t. But, again, while policy experts can debate the abstract conditions and remedies, we have a moral obligation to help actual children here and now in every way we can.
Recent studies have highlighted not only the growing income disparities in America but, as well, decreasing levels of social mobility. America has long been willing to tolerate less socio-economic equality in order to achieve a social fabric that allowed greater social mobility. In America, or so we believed, it didn’t matter who your grandparents were, we did not have first and second class compartments on the train (except in the South where the division was by race not class), and every man or woman could, at least in theory, travel as far as their talents could carry them. But, we now know that social mobility in the U.S. has fallen behind that of many of our European counterparts. In America today, a child born in poverty is likely to die in poverty. That is not only a moral scandal, it challenges the very premises of what we call the American Dream.
I have come to realize, living first in DC and now in suburban Maryland where the public schools are also less than appealing, that Catholic schools are today one of the few avenues for poor youngsters to climb out of poverty. There is a social justice imperative to supporting our Catholic schools. But, Catholic schools not only rescue children from failing schools, they rescue them from a culture that focuses like a laser beam on creating artificial, consumer-driven and consumer-satisfied needs in young minds, a culture that makes authentic human solidarity impossible and groups us humans into manageable categories as consumers, worker bees, and the like. Only in a Catholic – or other religious – school, will a child learn that she is a child of God, a dignity that can protect her from the onslaughts of ideology and consumerism and intellectual reductionisms, all of which amount to so much self-inflicted slavery. It is a shocking thing, as I have noted before, that in this country and this time, when we live with greater freedom than humankind has ever known, we are so willing to surrender our freedom to the consumer culture, or the allure of drugs, or to rigid ideologies that overlook actual human suffering (always perpetrated on someone else) in order to achieve some grand inhumane objective. The vocation of the Church in such a culture must be to defend its most vulnerable members, our children, from such an undignified slavery, the more undignified because it is chosen and not imposed. Catholic schools are a great bulwark against such a culture.
Catholic schools are also a great antidote to the increasing homogenization of our culture, an instance of genuine diversity. Oddly, some liberals who like to champion diversity in other contexts, do not like to recognize the value of diversity in educational choices. This is a shame. I do not value diversity because it evidences competition between schools. I value it because the human heart has many ambitions and desires, and no single, uniform approach will satisfy them all.
There is no shame in adhering in one’s youth to positions one inherits from a parent or a beloved uncle. But, there is great shame in adhering to such a position – or any position – in the face of evidence that it fails to meet the demands of justice.