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.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Case for Catholic Parents to Choose Catholic Schools (Part One)

The end of another school year has arrived—and for most of us in the legal academy probably arrived several weeks ago. For those of us who are parents, the elementary and secondary school year also has come to an end, although summer vacation for our kids is still new and fresh (at least to our kids if not us parents).

In recent weeks and months, members and friends of Mirror of Justice have reminded us of the vital importance of Catholic elementary and secondary education generally, for our children and communities:

In a very important work, “Catholic Schools and Broken Windows,” (SSRN) Margaret Brinig and Nicole Garnett explore the impact that the disappearance of Catholic schools has had on urban neighborhoods.

Patrick Brennan in “Differentiating Church and State (Without Losing the Church)” (SSRN) reminds us that the liberty of the Church has often been closely associated with the availability of Catholic education, citing the closing of thousands of Catholic schools in France as totalitarianism rose in the years before World War II.

With some regularity, the Mirror of Justice has hosted discussions of educational choice and the need for vouchers to allow children from disadvantaged families the option of attending a high quality Catholic school if they so choose.

And, of course, Rick Garnett has been indefatigable in boosting Catholic education. His philosophy, which I share, was most directly presented two-and-a-half years ago in this Mirror of Justice post: “I am a big fan of Catholic schools. Every parish should have one, every Catholic kid should be in one.”

To be sure, in determining the best education for their children, Catholic parents cannot all be expected to reach the same conclusion about whether to enroll children in the local public school or to select a Catholic school. Family resources, number of children, the particular needs of each child, the availability of a quality Catholic school in the parish or nearby, special academic opportunities or other programs in other public or private schools, and other factors and circumstances will lead parents in one or another direction.

In starting a short series of short posts on why Catholics generally should choose Catholic schools for their children, I acknowledge these factors and circumstances. Reasonable Catholics of good will can and will weigh those factors and circumstances differently. Moreover, as a strong believer that parents are entitled to make educational choices and not have those choices dictated, I would not presume to state some kind of “law,” moral or otherwise, on this question.

Instead, I humbly suggest that all things being equal, Catholics should begin with a rebuttable presumption in favor of Catholic schools and should support public policies that strengthen the ability of Catholic parents to choose Catholic schools, just as other parents should be empowered to make the best educational choice for their children.

Over the next few days, I will make that case in five more parts, turning on the comments for others to add thoughts or critique:

(1) Catholic education offers the best venue for children to learn to integrate faith into all aspects of life.

(2) For parents of means to choose Catholic schools for their own children enhances the opportunity for other families of lesser means to do the same.

(3) By choosing Catholic schools, we make a statement for educational choice that amplified by other parents may bring about an educational reform in this society that respects parents choice.

(4) Vital Catholic schools are important to a vital community, having an impact on neighborhoods beyond the parents and children who attend.

(5) Maintaining strong Catholic schools strengthens liberty and the role of the Church in public life.

Although I’ve already turned on the comments, you may wish to wait until each individual point is made in the days to come before adding your thoughts. More tomorrow.

Greg Sisk


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Thanks, Greg. Looking forward to these posts!

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 26, 2010 12:06:19 AM

I wrote a book called "Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America" based upon the Magisterial documents of the Church and the experience of Catholic parents (available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and at www.bridegroompress.com).

While Catholic primary and secondary schools are theoretically important, in a practical sense, such schools cannot be found in the United States. Indeed, they cannot be found in most industrialized countries.

Thus, whatever points you may make on a theoretical level, you need to make your points on a practical level as well. Given the facts on the ground, I don't think that's possible.

True, Catholics have had great success in educating children in the inner city and heavily urban areas. However, they have in most cases NOT been successful at actually accomplishing the primary goal of, that is, passing on Catholic Faith. Thus, these schools are not Catholic, they are secular. As the Magisterial documents point out, the simple fact that a school is run by the Catholic Church does not make it a Catholic school.

In short, due to the loss of the Catholic ghetto, the American Catholic Church currently runs a wonderful set of semi-elite college prep schools that are only nominally Catholic. There is no more to American "Catholic" education then that. No matter what your other points, you can't get around that fact. That is why "Catholic" education cannot ultimately succeed. There's not enough left of the brand to pay the cost of the product.

Catholic parochial schools are dying out faster than Catholic high schools precisely because high school is more proximate to college prep than grade schools. Even as we speak, homeschooling in general is now the largest private school initiative in the nation. At current rates of growth and decay, respectively, specifically Catholic homeschoolers will outnumber Catholic parochial school students within a generation.

I have only two things to say to the Catholic parochial schools.
Good riddance.

Posted by: Steve Kellmeyer | Jun 26, 2010 8:56:33 AM

Steve's book makes a lot of essential points that I think need to be addressed in this discussion as it proceeds. If a diocese committee were to sit down from a fresh perspective and brainstorm what kind of involvement it should have in education, it would look at Church documents and experience and see several things. It would see that the Church says that parishes' primary task is adult education, sometimes specifically saying that it should come before child education as a priority. It would see that parish time and resources are devoted almost exactly 95% to the opposite prioritization. It would see that the Church teaches parents to be the inviolably-primary educators of their children, including (or rather, foremost, by virtue of the sacrament of marriage) in the Faith. It would see that the main mechanism of a parish for causing the education of children, therefore, should be the education and formation of their adult parents to equip them to educate their children, and secondarily to offer support structures to help the parents in educating and involving their children (to make it easier for them to do in the various options including at home in conjunction with other homeschooling parents), integrating them into the life of the Church and society not by proposing a single model to the exclusion of others but by assisting all legitimate and worthy models.

My point isn't to say that a "parish school" is the wrong model--my point is that, starting from basic principles, the most unnatural conclusion for a diocese to reach would be to adopt a vision of "Catholic education" that excludes and looks down upon homeschooling. An integrated, holistic vision of how a parish should be involved in Catholic education of children will include as central if not emphasize homeschooling as part-of-how-the-parish-helps-parents-educate-their-children, alongside a true parish school model, and/or a true parent-run school model, and adult faith formation, and an array of ways to integrate different families who educate their children in different ways all in the one life of the same parish and Church.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jun 27, 2010 10:50:22 AM

What Steve says is (way) too broad. The claim that authentically and richly Catholic parish schools "cannot" be found in the United States is false. True, there are not enough of them. And it is also true that demographic and other realities counsel in favor of being open to non-parish-based models. But, the 'gold standard' -- in my view -- is a parish school, in which the pastor is very involved and invested, which is supported financially by all in the parish (whether they have children in the school or not), and which is (of course) authentically and pervasively Catholic.

Steve's claim that Catholic schools have not been successful in passing on the faith is also not true. Now, obviously, *real* success would mean that every child educated in a parish school goes on to be an engaged and faithful Catholic and, obviously, this does not happen. But, the best predictor of Catholic practice among adults is . . . attendance at a Catholic parochial school. They must be doing *something* right.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 27, 2010 12:12:36 PM

A gold standard within parochial schooling is possible, but not if you mean in an exclusivistic way as inherently superior to other models or to homeschooling in particular. The competitive view is itself a false premise. An exclusivistic view, an either-or approach to schooling methods that posits parochial school models as generally better and homeschooling communities as generally inferior, paint with just as broad a brush, in the same kinds of ways, as you argue Steve of painting against parochial schools. The ways in which parochial schools are said to be painted unfairly are no different in the structure of the argument (arguing from exceptionally bad anecdotes, or from uninformed ideas about what the model involves, or from an aggregate view of what kinds of people it produces) than the purported reasons that cauuse some people to believe homeschooling to be inferior. But the principles I mention above, including the primacy of adult formation, parents as child-educators via marriage sacramentality, and the Church's role as helping parents, are neither broad nor untrue, but are well-founded in Church teaching. They form some of the same core principles as the ones Greg is setting forth, and from them I believe we will see that the competitive view of parochial vs home schooling is untenable. So once an open-minded approach is taken towards Catholic education, Catholic homeschooling and parent run schooling and other options are recognized as not in themselves "non-parish-based models" at all, except to the extent that parishes and dioceses start with flawed premises about what those activities involve and what their relation can and should be with them, and with the conclusion that parish schools are in tension with those other models and therefore must be defended as "better" while defining the others as less ideal. I think fairness requires us to be open to considering each educational model without the prejudices that each of us may have formed about them. I believe we will be able to see in a discussion of all these issues that Catholic homeschooling has (or doesn't really have, on closer examination) the same potential problems as all Catholic education, and that each model instead has strengths that we often underestimate and that can be performed well and by many to turn these apparent problems into opportunities for excellence. A parish, a diocese, and an intellectual, who is open to Catholic education as not excluding and not marginalizing homeschooling form the outset of its consideration, will naturally include it at least alongside the other models at the heart of Catholic education, will both recognize and accentuate the community-building strengths inherent in the method. Homeschooling isn't a merely silver-medal method, if only we refrain from assuming that status from the outset.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jun 27, 2010 3:06:03 PM