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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Educational Choice, Catholic Schools, and Selectivity

Because educational choice has long been a central element of Catholic social teaching, for moral as well as educational reasons, I want to return to the thread about school choice and vouchers and continue our discussion about whether Catholic schools would offer an opportunity to disadvantaged students to receive an education superior to that provided in failing public school districts.

Following John Breen in his most recent post, I want to join him in responding further to the suggestion that the stronger academic performance of students in Catholic schools may be attributable in large part to the selectivity of Catholic schools in admitting students rather than to comparatively greater educational quality. At the end, and even more importantly, I also submit that whatever we as academics and well-educated and wealthy persons might conclude on the matter, we should respect the dignity of poor families in making their own educational choices about what is best for their children.

To the argument that Catholic schools are strictly selective in admissions and have high academic requirements for applicants, John has well explained that Catholic schools generally do not impose strict academic standards for admission. A few college-prep Catholic high schools do have stricter admission requirements (although most still admit the substantial majority of applicants). But my understanding is that the typical Catholic parish elementary school simply does not place academic criteria hurdles on students seeking to attend. Mirror of Justice readers might share with us their experiences about admission standards at Catholic parish schools and whether specific academic requirements for admission are set forth and enforced. But barring general evidence of a regular practice of imposing selective academic requirements for admission, the superior performance of Catholic schools cannot be dismissed on such grounds.

Nor do I think that Catholic schools can be characterized as meaningfully selective in ways other than academic factors. To be sure, nearly every Catholic parish school in the country has boilerplate admission rules giving priority to parishioners, siblings of current students, etc. Given that the average parish heavily subsidizes about the cost of the parish school, such preferences would be entirely appropriate. More pertinently for present purposes, through such parish investments, Catholic elementary schools are able to keep tuition lower and thereby make Catholic education more affordable. This in turn makes Catholic education more accessible to lower income families. Indeed, in most parishes, poor families in the parish who cannot afford even the reduced tuition are granted tuition discounts or waivers. As a matter of principle and social justice, most parishes do not allow ability to pay to prevent any family in the parish from obtaining a Catholic education for their children. Thus, by embedding the parish school within the parish itself and tying the two together in admissions rules, the result is not to make Catholic education more selective but exactly the opposite.

Moreover, based on my admittedly anecdotal experience (and here too readers could share with us their own experiences), such parish family and sibling preference rules tend to exist only in theory because there are ample openings available for new students in the majority of Catholic parish schools. Priority rules for admission only come into play when students are competing for limited openings, which simply is not the case for most Catholic parish schools. (By way of personal example, when we moved to Minnesota and were searching for Catholic elementary schools in the western part of the Twin Cities for our daughter, we had not yet joined a parish or satisfied any preference requirements. We decided to apply to three Catholic schools, only one of which turned out to be at full enrollment and even that school eventually granted admission after a two-year delay.) In sum, the typical Catholic parish school does not select its students. Rather the families of those students select the Catholic school.

Finally, as John acknowledged in his posting, families that choose a Catholic school for their children presumably have education as a high priority. And positive family engagement with their children’s education may encourage greater educational achievement. But that hardly means that Catholic schools have an advantage over the public schools for a reason distinct and separate from educational mission and quality. The focus on parental engagement with the school is an attribute of Catholic schools. Along with the excellence and dedication of Catholic teachers, the quality of the Catholic curriculum, and the institutional environment, a welcoming attitude toward parents, regular communication with parents, an insistence that parents attend conferences, and a concerted effort to ensure that every family is fully integrated into the school community are central elements of Catholic education. In sum, parental engagement isn’t something ex ante to or separate from the educational opportunity offered by Catholic schools. A commitment to fostering family engagement is part and parcel of the Catholic educational choice.

In addition, I have every reason to believe that the substantial majority of families of children trapped in failing public schools in central city areas like Washington, D.C or Chicago likewise consider the education of their children to be a high priority. They often have been frustrated in trying to navigate the public school bureaucracy or have lost hope that parental involvement could make a difference. Many poor families find the public school system, with its huge bureaucracy and teacher-union cartel and protective rules, to be alienating, which suppresses both their willingness and ability to become more involved. And the fact that poor families have little or no choice in educational options simply adds to that sense of helplessness and alienation.

When it comes to school choice, we might give some attention to the actual choices—or wishes—of two groups of people who should be most informed about these matters and who have the most at stake by virtue of their concern for their own children:

First, when it comes to a choice between the Chicago or Washington, D.C. public schools and private school alternatives, prominent political leaders like every recent Democratic nominee for president—Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton—have made the presumably informed choice to eschew the public schools and enroll their children in private schools. Sadly, each of these politicians are determined to deny that same educational choice to poor families in America, leaving the disadvantaged as pawns subject to the choices or agendas of others.

Second, poor families in urban school districts would not apply for and obtain vouchers when available unless they saw some value in placing their children in alternative education. Many families may choose to remain with the public schools or conclude that private alternatives are unappealing. But for those who wish such a choice, why would we not give weight to those preferences when formulating educational policy? Doesn’t the preferential option for the poor encourage us to think not merely in terms of spending money on government programs but also to adopt policies and programs that respect human dignity and liberty? Why would we think it appropriate to allow government elites, entrenched school district bureaucrats, and the teacher’s union lobby to dictate the educational choices of poor families who have reached a different conclusion about what is best for their children?

Greg Sisk


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