Schools in Need

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

9/10/99

 

            The public schools in the county where I live are pretty good.  The test scores are  going up.  The facilities are fairly modern.  The teachers are very dedicated.  Some stay with the system for many years.  Like many growing communities, the schools are overcrowded. But that problem is being addressed gradually with an ambitious building program that opens one new school per year.

            At the same time the demand for Catholic schools in our area is also growing.  Parents are afraid of drug use and violence.  There is a desire for prayer and religious training, especially in the lower grades.  We recognize that one hour a week of religious education for 30 weeks of the year does not form our children into mature adult Christians.

            This fall more than 60 million children will start school in America.  This is the most ever.  Each year when our state Catholic conference goes to lobby the legislature, we ask for some form of assistance to private schools.  We really need it.  Our parents pay the double burden of supporting two school systems. 

Given the fact that a presidential election is coming, school funding will be a hot button issue from the court house to the White House.  Maybe now is the time to rethink how we frame the issue.

            Much of the debate in this coming election year will pit public schools against private.  Parents of children in religious schools will be seen as opposed to parents of children in public schools.   Those who want vouchers or charter schools will be seen as weakening the public system.

From my standpoint as a pastor in a community where 90% of the Catholic children go to public schools, it seems to me that this is a false division.  There is way to frame the discussion that takes care of every child.  If some of the fringe groups like the ACLU and the radical religious right will just dial it back a bit, we might even be able to see some common ground.

Perhaps Catholics can lead the way.

For 150 years we have operated an excellent school system, serving millions of people of all faiths, pretty much without government aid.  We have a lot of experience and expertise to bring to the discussion.

Catholic schools are no threat to the public system.  Indeed, we have common interests.  Even if we both had a huge increase in funding we would still have a long way to go to serve all our children well.

A starting point for any Church lobbying on the issue should be that public schools need more resources, not less.  Any pressure for vouchers or charter schools should be coupled with a resolution that existing public school systems should be held harmless.

In addition, we have some expertise to offer to public systems.  The fact that Catholic schools are known to be very lean in their overhead costs while public systems are administratively top heavy may provide an openning.

Thirdly, maybe we could agree that the First Amendment to the Constitution is as strong in guaranteeing religious expression as it is in preventing the governmental establishment of religion.  Other free societies seem to have worked this out.  As a universal church the Catholic community could bring it's experience elsewhere in the world to the table.  The many Catholic children in  public schools would benefit.  There could be Catholic Clubs meeting after school.  Catholic teachers would find a chance to be moderators and mentors for our kids.  The many who may never have another religious class after CCD could deepen their faith as adults.

We all a common interest in good schools.  Both Catholic social teaching and American civics lessons stress the common good.  The common interest is our kids.  That provides a lot of common ground, no matter where we go to school.