Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Catholic Schools, Selectivity, School Choice and Obama

Friend of MOJ and Univ. of St. Thomas Law Professor Elizabeth Brown wrote the following e-mail to me in response to my post on Obama and school choice which I am happy to reprint with her permission:

Your post on MOJ might have reflected what Obama said but it did not accurately reflect how Catholic schools operate.

Mr. Obama's original point that private schools can be selected still applies to Catholic schools even in the poor neighborhoods.  Catholic schools do not take everyone.  They are very selective.  St. Ignatius College Prep and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School both have very demanding entrance requirements that weed out many students that perform poorly academically for a variety of reasons.  In addition, as Lisa Schiltz has pointed out elsewhere, Catholic schools do not take children with disabilities.  Finally, Catholic schools can always expel a student if he or she fails to meet the standards (discipline, academic, etc.).  Such students are then forced back into the public schools (where it is much harder to permanently expel a student) until they have met the mandatory age requirements and can drop out of the system. 

The fact that Obama did not note this in his response to you might be due either to lack of familiarity with how Catholic schools are actually run or it might be due to a desire on his part not to say negative things about the institution (the Catholic Church) which was integrally tied to the university hosting him.

I am quite sure that my post accurately reflects what Mr. Obama said, and I am also confident that I have not misrepresented how Catholic schools operate in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Elizabeth makes one point that is beyond dispute: some Catholic schools (in Chicago and elsewhere) are selective.  Indeed, one school to which she refers, St. Ignatius College Prep, is highly selective (admitting only 64% of applicants) though not quite as exclusive as the Univ. of Chicago Lab School (admitting only 47% of applicants) where Senator Obama's children attend school.  This selectivity is not however the norm for Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese.  Far from it.  Indeed, as this article makes plain, some high schools in the Archdiocese such as St. Joe's in Westchester (one of the high schools featured in the film Hoop Dreams) accept 100% of their applicants, while many others approach this figure (e.g. Brother Rice 98%, Carmel 96%, St. Patrick’s 99%, etc.  N.B. The article discusses private schools (religious and secular) in the Chicago area which, as concerns Catholic schools, includes not only the Archdiocese of Chicago but the Dioceses of Joliet and Rockford as well). These figures don’t support the claim I took Obama to be making, namely, that Catholic schools perform better than public schools because they cherry-pick the best and the brightest students.

In a subsequent e-mail, and more with respect to Catholic grade schools, Elizabeth added:

From what I could tell by looking at the websites of Catholic elementary schools in the poorer areas of Chicago, most do not disclose on what basis they select students.  It is, thus, hard to tell which ones do use academic standards as a basis for admissions and which ones do not.

One Catholic elementary school that did disclose its admission criteria was Our Lady of Guadalupe, which indicated that it gave preference to siblings of existing students, then children of parishioners, then Catholic children of non-parishioners, and then others in the neighboring area.  These criteria are still "selective" even if they are not based on academics.  For example, students of parishioners are more likely than the average student in the Chicago school system to come from relatively stable families and students whose families are seeking to enroll them in a Catholic school even though they are not Catholic are probably more concerned about education than most low income families.  As a result, the school is already focusing on a smaller group of students who are likely to succeed better in school than most low income students because of their family circumstances.

As Elizabeth notes, the fact that a Catholic school gives preferences to siblings and parishioners isn’t being selective in an academic sense.  Indeed, given that siblings often live in the same household and parishioners live close to a parish, these criteria are similar to the geographic criteria that serve as the primary means of determining which public school a child will attend.  Elizabeth’s e-mail also quotes Our Lady of Guadalupe’s website which states that "Students desiring entrance to our school are not accepted on the basis of academic achievement or natural intelligence.”

Like Elizabeth, my survey of Chicago Catholic grade schools didn’t indicate that schools make use of academic criteria when considering admission.  Accordingly, I think it would be wrong to presume that academic aptitude is an important criteria, or even that it is factor at all.  I did find some information regarding the academic criteria for admission from the Catholic school that is literally right around the corner from Senator Obama’s house. St. Thomas the Apostle School requires students seeking admission to be performing “at grade level.”   While this suggests that at least this school is not actively seeking under-performing students, it does not suggest that the school is only seeking the best and the brightest.

Catholic schools can, of course, be selective, in terms of a student’s ability to pay for tuition (hence the call for vouchers).  Still, the students in Chicago’s Catholic schools are a diverse group with respect to race and ethnicity, and with the help of the Big Shoulders Fund and other forms of financial assistance, economically as well. (See here and here).

I agree that Catholic schools may be “selective” in the qualified sense that Elizabeth notes, namely, that the children who attend these schools may be more likely to come from families that appreciate the importance of education.  That is, parents of Catholic school children have to be at least somewhat pro-active in seeking out an alternative to the local public school.  It is unclear, however, whether and to what extent this general interest in education translates into enhanced performance.

As this article makes clear, studies that account for academic selectivity have shown that Black and Hispanic children enrolled in Chicago Catholic high schools enjoy much higher rates of attendance and graduation than their public school counterparts.

With respect to Catholic schools and children with disabilities, I have not found any information from the Archdiocese that is publicly available.  I have, however, been in touch with someone who works for the Archdiocese in the hopes of learning more about this subject and sharing it with MOJ readers.  Several school sites indicate that they consider such children on a case by case basis.  Even if we assume that public schools are responsible for a higher percentage of children with disabilities (an altogether fair assumption), I’m not aware of any proof that this fact alone can account for the markedly greater success of Catholic schools.

Elizabeth notes that Obama may have been unfamiliar with Chicago Catholic schools when he made the remark that he did.  I took his point to be that Catholic schools have an unfair advantage when compared with public schools in that they can pad their student rosters with the best students.  While St. Ignatius may fit this description, this is not an accurate characterization of Chicago Catholic schools in general.  Moreover, I hope that everyone would agree that we should expect our public officials to base their policy determinations on something more than uninformed assumptions.  Rather than acquaint himself with the relevant facts, it seems to me that Obama had a ready-made answer and a policy determination that aligned with a constituency whom he felt he needed to satisfy.


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