The editors of the New York Times probably didn’t intend to lend their support to National School Choice Week (January 27-February 2). Last week, at thousands of events and in a rich variety of ways, teachers, parents, students, and advocates across the country raised awareness, educated neighbors, challenged leaders, and brought hope. And, in a recent article prompted by the release of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, “For Sotomayor, Bronx School’s Closing Prompts Heartache—and Memories,” the Times underscored—again, probably by accident—the importance of what is at stake.
Blessed Sacrament School in the Bronx, which Justice Sotomayor attended for eight years, is set to close, as are twenty-four more Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York. “We’re not closing them because they’re inferior,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan observed. “They are excellent, first-rate schools. They’re just struggling with enrollment and finances, and that makes the decision all the more painful.”
This hard decision, and many like it in other cities, should be “painful” for all of us. Since the year 2000, about 2,000 Catholic schools have closed or consolidated, and the number of children attending Catholic schools has dropped by more than 600,000. This is—as Justice Sotomayor put it, describing the loss of Blessed Sacrament School—“heartbreaking.”
“You know how important those eight years were?” she asks. “It’s symbolic of what it means for all our families, like my mother, who were dirt-poor. She watched what happened to my cousins in public school and worried if we went there, we might not get out. So she scrimped and saved. It was a road of opportunity for kids with no other alternative.”
The steady loss of Catholic schools is not only a crisis for the mission and ministry of the Catholic Church in America. It also threatens to detour, and in many cases to dead-end, that “road of opportunity.” What’s more, as new research by law professors Margaret Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett demonstrates, Catholic school closures in urban neighborhoods are associated with decreases in social cohesion and increases in disorder (see “Catholic Schools and Broken Windows”). Along with other scholars, Brinig and Garnett have reminded us of the importance of “social capital” and the anchoring, mediating institutions that strengthen communities and character alike. In our history, few institutions have played this role as successfully as Catholic schools have.
What’s more, for more than 150 years, and often despite bias and bigotry, Catholic schools have relieved governments of huge financial burdens while providing communities with immeasurable civic benefits. Indeed, America’s Catholic schools represent one of the most dramatic donations of time, talent, and treasure to the common good in our history. Perhaps instead of making the “heartbreaking” choice to close Blessed Sacrament School, Cardinal Dolan should call a press conference and present to the American people a sizable bill for services rendered.
National School Choice Week is not an exercise in reaction or nostalgia. The point is not to treat struggling Catholic schools like rickety historic landmarks or heritage sites, or to attach a “Justice Sonia Sotomayor Studied Here” plaque to the wall at Blessed Sacrament. The school-choice movement, and last week’s celebrations, are not about sentimentality; they are, as John Coons once put it, about “simple justice.” School choice—and, more specifically, public support for the education of the public that is provided by parochial and other religious schools—is required in justice.
Last week’s events should not cause us to sigh and look back wistfully. Instead, they should wake us up, and fire us up. Kids in the situation that Justice Sotomayor faced and neighborhoods like the one in which she grew up don’t have to lose out, and schools like Blessed Sacrament don’t have to close. The school-closing epidemic is not caused by a decline in demand for Catholic education but by our foolish and unfair unwillingness to support financially the good work of Catholic schools and students’ choices to attend them.
Schools like Blessed Sacrament are closing not because big-city kids don’t want to attend them but because they cannot afford to attend them. School choice can help and, in a growing number of places, is helping. Despite determined opposition and unfounded attacks by well-funded teachers-union opponents, public support for school choice is increasing, as is the willingness of policymakers to embrace innovation.
In 2011, Indiana enacted the nation’s most expansive school-voucher program, which is already benefitting thousands of students and saving public money. In 2012, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Virginia joined the eighteen other states with up-and-running school-choice mechanisms, including tuition scholarships and tax credits. The wind, we can hope, is at the reformers’ backs.
And yet, substantial obstacles remain. Although the Supreme Court affirmed, in its landmark 2002 Zelman decision, that the First Amendment allows governments to experiment with school-voucher programs that include religious schools, the canard that such programs undermine the “wall of separation” between church and state continues to distract and mislead.
The anti-Catholic bigotry that for many decades drove and animated opposition not only to public support for parents who chose Catholic schools but also to Catholic schooling itself has receded, but many state constitutions still contain no-aid provisions that reflect this prejudice. And, of course, the teachers unions are among the most powerful special-interest organizations in politics, and they often succeed in casting their self-interested opposition to school choice in student-oriented terms.
Not only during National School Choice Week, but in every other week, too, those who care about children’s formation and flourishing should commit to removing or overcoming these obstacles. In addition, we should emphasize and insist that the case for school choice goes beyond budgets and test scores and is about more than competition and efficiency; it is, again, a matter of justice.
It is not only wrongheaded, but also morally wrong, for our communities and governments to pretend that public education—that is, the education of the public—only happens in government-run schools, and wrong too to deny low-income parents meaningful choices regarding their children’s education. After all, public education is the goal, and this goal should not be equated with, or reduced to, the interests of those who are employed in state-operated schools.
School choice is best viewed and framed as a moral question, as—again, in Coons’s words—an “issue of civil rights and basic justice,” constitutive of the common good, and a crucial aspect of parents’ responsibility and vocation to direct the education and formation of their children.
School choice is constitutional, but we should not imagine that the lawsuits will end any time soon. School choice “works,” but we should not hold our breath waiting for education researchers to achieve consensus. The arguments against school choice are unsound, but opponents are not going to stop making them.
Perhaps the most common anti-choice contention is that it would undermine public schools and their unifying mission. The New York Times cheered, a few years ago, when Congress dropped what the editors regarded as an “ill-considered voucher provision”—a provision which, in the Times’s view, would have been a “dangerous drain on public school resources.” But the Times did not explain how these “resources” came to be public school resources, rather than public education resources.
To say this is certainly not to say that we should ignore the possibility that choice and competition could negatively affect government-run schools. It does suggest, though, that bare assertions about, say, “cream skimming” or “draining resources,” standing alone, are not particularly powerful arguments against choice, opportunity, diversity, and pluralism.
There is no good reason to think that concerns about the job security of public school employees should trump the dreams of low-income children for something better. The late William Raspberry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning longtime columnist for the Washington Post, put the matter well: “Look at it from the viewpoint of parents who grab at the chance to get their children into better schools. Should they be required to keep their children in bad schools to keep those schools from growing worse?”
It has been twenty years since Coons wrote that “shifting educational authority from government to parents is a policy that rests upon basic beliefs about the dignity of the person, the rights of children, and the sanctity of the family; it is a shift that also promises a harvest of social trust as the experience of responsibility is extended to all.” These “larger reasons for believing in choice” are, he insisted, “equal in dignity to those that underlie our great constitutional freedoms.” He was right then, and he still is.
Richard Garnett is Associate Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School.
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