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.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Case for Catholic Schools (Part Three): Expanding Access to Catholic Education for All Catholics

This is the third in a series of six.  Here you may find Parts One and Two.  As before, I have turned on the comments, which have been interesting and vigorous and, almost without exception, have been thoughtful and generous in substance and tone, both in agreement and disagreement.  (Note:  While I have not removed any comment thus far, anonymous comments will be deleted in the future; your email will not be disclosed on the blog.)  I am sure that I will learn from the continuing discussion accompanying this thread, and I know from the feedback both on and off-the blog that Mirror of Justice readers are watching the unfolding discussion with anticipation.

In today’s post, I suggest that no single action we could take does more to increase access to Catholic education for all Catholic families than to support our own parish Catholic school by choosing it for our children.  As I emphasized in the preface to this whole discussion (Part One), parents rightly should have the power to make educational choices for their children, a right which we as Catholic lawyers, legal scholars, and advocates in public life should zealously defend (more on that point tomorrow).  As I also said then, faithful Catholic parents will reasonably make different choices under different circumstances. But, when Catholic parents are balancing the factors and educational options for their children, a powerful additional reason to select a Catholic school is that such an affirmation enhances opportunity for others as well.  Consistent with Catholic Social Teaching, solidarity with other Catholic families and the preferential option for the poor are advanced by an educational choice that opens up Catholic education to the impoverished, to struggling single-parent families, to families suffering recent unemployment, etc.

When those of us who have been financially blessed make the economic sacrifice of forgoing the public schools supported by our taxes and instead paying tuition for our children to attend Catholic schools, we thereby enhance educational choice for others in two vital ways.  First, by supporting Catholic schools, we ensure that future generations will have the same opportunity for quality Catholic education that was afforded to us and our children.  Second, because Catholic schools nearly always operate close to the margin, especially in the parish setting, stability and growth in tuition-paying students makes it possible for Catholic schools to offer scholarships for Catholic children whose families could not otherwise afford Catholic education.

In our legal and public advocacy, we as Catholics should encourage and defend public policies that expand educational choice for all.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 upholding tuition aid to Cleveland students seeking alternatives to the failing public schools, specifically including faith-based education, was a tremendous victory for educational choice.  But the Court upheld school choice by a narrow five-to-four margin, and some state courts have ruled against vouchers to religious schools under state constitutional provisions.  Moreover, even though constitutionally-validated, such programs exist in only a few places, such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, and, until recently, Washington, D.C.  But while full educational choice for all, regardless of economic means, is a battle yet to won, we can take modest steps now as Catholic parents to expand access for other Catholic families through our support of Catholic schools.

In any strong Catholic parish with an elementary school at its heart, no Catholic family in the parish should be turned away from Catholic education because of disadvantage.  And if the parish and parish school are not financially able to afford such an opportunity to all parishioners, then we have work to do in strengthening that parish and school so that Catholic education is accessible to every Catholic family.  Likewise, we should be supporting the precious Catholic high schools in our community, including contributing to scholarship programs (a step which I myself need to take but have not yet), so that all Catholics can enjoy the faith-based and academic opportunities that they offer.  In contrast with so many politicians who choose private schools for their children while holding the door shut against others, we should put our commitment to educational choice into concrete action by not only choosing it for ourselves but by helping to open the door for others.

Greg Sisk


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"And if the parish and parish school are not financially able to afford such an opportunity to all parishioners, then we have work to do in strengthening that parish and school so that Catholic education is accessible to every Catholic family." Great words.

Posted by: Mike Roberts | Jun 28, 2010 11:16:49 AM

I think your point is a strong one. It might be worth discussion whether and how it applies in different ways to financially challenged fellow Catholics versus to the poor in general who can't afford Catholic schools. When Catholic schools began in America, there was a strong distinction between Catholic schools for Catholic kids and Catholic mission schools for non-Catholic kids. The bishops issued what we would today consider somewhat harsh language about the need for a Catholic school in the former category to have only Catholic children and teachers. Today Catholic schools seem to have fully blended the two models. And although our cultural circumstance is different today, there are still significant impacts affecting the Catholic identity and culture of the school whether the children are Catholic (and for that matter, to what degree the Catholic faith is strong in the homes of those children). In other words, if a parochial school is essentially a fully mixed mission school and Catholic children school in terms of child population, there can be a tension between the benefit that sending a Catholic child to the school confers on the poor, versus the potential risk to the Catholicity of the educational and (in some ways more importantly) the peer culture to which the Catholic parent is exposing his child for 7 hours a day. I think Catholics need to help poor mission school families access Catholic education, and poor Catholic families too, but not necessarily in the same institution.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jun 30, 2010 8:55:35 AM