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Catholic Education

Church is at the center of voucher debate

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Meet the two faces of the push for public funding for private schools in America.

The first belongs to Pilar Gonzales. Gonzales and her family struggle to make ends meet in their working-class Milwaukee home.

"We light candles a lot of the time instead of using electricity. We cook one huge meal for the week to avoid using the stove very often," she said. Yet, Gonzales pays to send her three school-aged children to Catholic schools instead of to the city's free public schools.

Leigha, 16, attends Pius High School, while Andres, 10, and Bianca, 8, are enrolled at St. Lawrence Elementary.

Horrified by the crumbling public school system in Milwaukee, Gonzales wanted something better for her children. "The public schools are overcrowded and unsafe," she said. "I have to do right by my kids. ... This is their future."

Vouchers, a system through which parents could receive public funds to help pay private school tuition, are a very practical matter for Pilar Gonzales. If vouchers would help her kids stay in safer, more caring schools, she's for them.

The second face of the voucher movement belongs to Michael Joyce, president of the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, from which position he acts as godfather of a conservative philanthropic movement that aims to use private dollars to influence public debates. Joyce is widely considered a major figure in Republican intellectual circles, pushing an antigovernment agenda he calls "new citizenship."

"Over time, citizenship has come to be understood as voting and then standing aside while the experts in government take over," Joyce said. "We need to change that."

With its $24 million in annual grants, the Bradley Foundation is a leading donor to PAVE, a private scholarship program that gives half-tuition grants to 4,400 students attending private schools in Milwaukee, including Gonzales' three children. The Bradley Foundation also provides funds to the American Enterprise Institute, American Spectator magazine, the Heritage Foundation, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and scores of other conservative causes.

While Joyce is adamant that vouchers will help the poor, for him the debate is much bigger than the fate of a few families. Ultimately, it's about the proper role of government -- a role Joyce and his fellow devotees of the free market say ought to be minimal. His goal is for market mechanisms to replace public policy in determining the allocation of educational resources.

These two centers of support -- one a social justice concern for the urban poor, the other an ideological belief in free markets and limited government -- are driving the voucher crusade forward. On the other side of the political fence are the public school system and its defenders, especially the teachers' unions.

The battle is being fought in state and federal legislatures, courtrooms and the media. All signs suggest it is heating up.

The Catholic church is caught squarely in the middle. With its network of more than 8,000 private elementary and secondary schools, the church would be the largest beneficiary of vouchers. That makes it a major player in the debate at all levels of government.

Church leadership

The educational leadership of the church has made its support for vouchers clear. As it positions itself in the political fray, however, the church faces a very basic question of allegiance. Is its primary loyalty with Gonzales and the urban poor? If so, in addition to pressing for vouchers for its inner-city schools, will the church also call openly and forcefully for the resuscitation of the public system, recognizing that under any scenario, public schools will continue to educate the bulk of America's poor children? Will the church be guided on this issue by self-interest or by the common good?

Or, will the adversarial dynamics of the voucher debate place the church in a tacit alliance with the free-market conservative vanguard, which sees schooling as another commodity awaiting its turn on the auction block? Many observers believe the answers to those questions will determine a great deal, not only about the future of the voucher movement, but also about the role the Catholic church plays in American public life.

Few dispute the appalling condition of many inner-city public schools. Consider these statistics from the Center for Education Reform, a leading critic of the public system:

  • In Philadelphia, less than 10 percent of the district's public elementary schools meet or exceed the national reading norm.
  • In Detroit, the public high school graduation rate is less than 30 percent.
  • In Cleveland, more than 25 percent of high school seniors failed to pass a required 9th grade proficiency test -- and that's only 35 percent of the original 9th grade class. The rest had either failed, dropped out or been placed in special education classes.
  • In Toledo, Ohio, one in eight high school students misses more than 50 days of school.

"There's no question that traditional neighborhood schools in urban areas do not serve their populations well," said Steve Kest of ACORN, an association of low-income community groups in New York City. "Kids come out of these schools significantly behind their counterparts in suburban areas."

The problems of inner-city education are staggering: dilapidated facilities, crowded classrooms, demoralized teachers, outdated textbooks and communities ravaged by crime and drugs.

America's school finance system exacerbates the problem. Despite the best efforts of state legislatures and courts to mandate some degree of equalization in funding, wide disparities still exist between the resources in urban and suburban districts. While suburban schools prosper from a strong local tax base, urban schools decline. It's a cycle that has many poor families understandably desperate for alternatives.

None of this is to suggest that inner-city education is uniformly poor. There are remarkable success stories -- Harlem's Central Park East schools, for example, which have been the subject of intense national study. Decades of research, however, have settled on one sobering conclusion: As long as urban schools lack the resources available to their suburban counterparts, success will remain a heroic exception rather than the norm.

The issue is money

"If money is not the issue, I'd like to know why the rich are spending so much on their suburban school systems," said Jonathan Kozol, who has written extensively on the condition of urban public schools. "In the New York area, the per-pupil expenses are $6,000 in the Bronx, but $16,000 in Great Neck, Long Island. They spend that much because, even allowing for the inevitable inefficiencies in any large system, you get what you pay for."

Given the terrible condition of inner-city public schools, many poor families look to Catholic alternatives. All the evidence suggests they're wise to do so. Studies differ on how to explain the higher test scores and greater levels of parental satisfaction associated with inner-city Catholic schools, but virtually everyone concedes that, for whatever reason, urban Catholic schools often provide a better education for poor children.

Why do Catholic schools succeed? A host of factors is involved: size, with Catholic elementary schools serving populations of 200-400, while public schools routinely serve over 1,000; selectivity, as Catholic schools can pick and choose their students, while public ones have to take everyone; the greater academic rigor of many Catholic schools; parental involvement; and the spirit of community that is part of the Catholic belief system.

"You have to taste it to know the tremendous difference our schools make," said Sister of Notre Dame Phyllis Cook, principal of St. Columbkille's Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles.

However one accounts for it, the argument that inner-city children are often better educated, safer and more cared for in Catholic schools seems convincing. This argument holds, of course, as long as the frame of reference is the inner city. In America's suburbs, well-funded public school systems perform every bit as well, and in some cases better, than the private competition.

"In urban areas, it's clear that kids in Catholic schools do better than in the public schools. The more affluent the public school is, the better it does," said Leonard DeFiore, president of the National Catholic Educational Association.

For people in the inner city, then, vouchers amount to an educational lifeline. These communities want what is best for their children, something they feel wealthier families already have.

"It's not right that just because you have more money, you have more opportunity," said Val Johnson, like Pilar Gonzales a mother of three children in Milwaukee Catholic schools.

For the first face of the voucher movement -- the face of the inner city poor, denied the same educational opportunity that more affluent communities enjoy -- vouchers amount to simple justice.

If only it were that simple. The history of vouchers, however, suggests a much more complex political and social dynamic.

For conservative theorists, two lines of thought on vouchers intersect. One is a fear that a latent totalitarianism lurks behind state-controlled education. Another is the conviction that public monopolies are economically inefficient and should be replaced by market forces. These two ideas, both central to the conservative world-view, help explain the passion that often animates debate.

The first idea -- the notion that public education is simply another term for mind control by the state -- is advanced by Stephen Arons, a law professor at the University of Massachusetts. Arons first articulated this view in 1976 in an influential article on that topic in the Harvard Education Review.

There, Arons, who believes that compulsory public schooling violates freedom of conscience, cited the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote that public schooling "is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mold in which it cast them is that which pleases the predominant power in government ... in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind."

Mill's fear of "despotism over the mind" speaks especially to the religious right, which tends to suspect public schools of inculcating an antireligious "secular humanism." This wing of the conservative movement sees vouchers as an opportunity to soften the distinction between church and state. Arons said in an interview, "People need the right to choose schools that are consistent with their own value system."

Linked in the '50s

The heart of the conservative case against public schooling, however, is economic. Conservatives believe that the free market is a better way to determine the allocation of goods in a society than government policy. The first conservative thinker to explicitly link the free-market philosophy to vouchers was Milton Friedman, who called for a privatized education system in the 1950s. That dream is very much alive today in the voucher movement.

Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation said, "The choices of parents should be the principal factor in determining educational arrangements." From this standpoint, consumer preference, rather than public policy, should decide which schools survive and which fail.

The ultimate aim of conservative voucher proponents is the deconstruction of the "government monopoly" on schooling altogether. "The state has an interest in an educated citizenry, but it doesn't follow that the sole method of accomplishing this end is the government school," Joyce said. "We can have public education through vehicles other than public schools."

For the second face of the voucher movement, then, the needs of the urban poor help make the case, but the issue itself is much larger. It's about a belief in private choices over public policy. It represents an instinctive hostility to claims that the needs of the community can sometimes override the freedom of the individual -- a degree of individualism that should pose troubling questions for Catholics familiar with the church's social teaching.

Fringe issue no more

Vouchers have come of age politically. Long considered a fringe issue, today 15 states are considering voucher proposals, according to the Education Commission for the States. Senate Republicans have made vouchers for low-income families one of the components of their major legislative initiative, SB 1.

Within the conservative intellectual elite, there is a clear sense that the time for vouchers has arrived. Writing in the March 10 Weekly Standard, William Kristol claims that "a conservative agenda of parental choice and local control holds greater promise than almost anyone in Washington realizes." Kristol, by the way, was paid by the Bradley Foundation in the early 1990s to help develop their agenda for the decade.

To date, however, only two municipalities actually have voucher programs in which public dollars subsidize low-income students in private schools -- Cleveland and Milwaukee. Both programs include Catholic schools, and both have been challenged in court. So far, Cleveland's program -- only a year old -- has been upheld, while Milwaukee's has not. Both are on appeal. Studies have reached different conclusions about the Milwaukee experiment.

At this point, therefore, real-life experience is still insufficient to draw any sweeping conclusions about voucher programs. For the time being, the debate will continue to swirl around two largely hypothetical questions: Are vouchers constitutional? Will they work?

Opponents of vouchers argue that such programs amount to an establishment of religion -- even though parents choose the schools -- because taxpayer dollars flow to institutions with an explicitly religious purpose. Voucher proponents disagree. "I can go to a Catholic hospital using Medicare, and nobody says the government has just recognized Catholicism," said Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform.

Competing legal arguments aside, most observers expect the present Supreme Court to approve some form of public support for religious schools. "It will be a close vote, but there's ample evidence that the door might be opening wider," said Fritz Steiger, president of CEO America, a group that supports the growing number of privately funded scholarship programs around the country for poor families wanting to send their children to private schools.

Catholic school capacity

With the constitutional issue out of the way, the debate will come to rest on whether or not vouchers work. If success means greater freedom of choice for some low-income parents, the obvious answer is yes. If it means a better education for all children, the answer is much more problematic.

Consider the capacity of existing private schools. The Catholic education association's DeFiore estimates that existing Catholic schools overall might be able to add five percent to the student population. That means just 130,000 students, since Catholic schools, K-12, presently serve a little over 2.6 million students. Given that the enrollment in New York City public schools alone is over a million, it's easy to see that the vast majority of students in America are not suddenly going to be transported out of the public system under a voucher plan.

What about the emergence of new private schools? The limited Milwaukee experience suggests it may not be as simple as it sounds. A handful of schools created there specifically to educate voucher students has already folded. In any event, it's unlikely that a sufficient number of schools will crop up to put much of a statistical dent in public school enrollment.

The real issue in the voucher debate, therefore, is the fate of the majority of poor children who will remain in public schools, no matter what happens. Advocates for vouchers believe they'll be better off, as public schools retool to compete, using resources more wisely and being more responsive to the needs of parents. Opponents contend that vouchers will further siphon resources, both fiscal and human, away from institutions already bleeding.

The real impact of vouchers on public education is likely to be less dramatic than either side is willing to admit in the heat of political debate. Peter Cookson, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, said, "Private alternatives to public education may seem convincing on paper, but in reality they are no solution at all."

"Vouchers are likely to mean a great deal for those who get them, and relatively little for everyone else," said Professor Jeffrey Henig of George Washington University.

The Catholic position

Where does all this leave the church? For one thing, a solid case can be made for its position in favor of vouchers for poor families based on the consensus that Catholic schools in the inner city serve poor communities better than public schools. At the same time, however, the nagging question remains: What about those left behind?

Kozol, whose books on urban education such as Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace have earned him a closet full of honorary degrees, displays only one on his wall -- a "doctor of crayons" degree from the kindergarten class at St. Augustine's Elementary School in the South Bronx. Kozol, who is Jewish, says the degree hangs right next to his portrait of Thomas Merton.

"I would do anything I could for these inner-city Catholic schools," he said. "They make an incredible contribution." At the same time, Kozol said, the stakes are much bigger than the well-being of the small number of additional children who could be accommodated in Catholic schools. "The question is, What is the greatest possible social justice? Is it to take care of my child, or to take care of all children?" said Kozol.

Despite an honest difference of opinion between Catholic and public educators over vouchers, observers suggest the church, as a major force in the vouchers debate, could advance the interests of all poor children if it could also help make the case for support of the public system.

"Catholic schools and public schools share a common purpose of educating the young people of a community," Cookson said. "What we need is an alliance between the two."

Catholic educators in urban areas understand that the best interests of poor children are represented by support for public education. Wilma Elbouhnini, principal of Verbum Dei High School in the Watts section of Los Angeles, said "The people I serve are very poor. We need to educate all the children of the community, no matter which school they attend. ... We [Catholic and public schools] have the same goal, the same struggle ... the same commitment to this community," Elbouhnini said.

A key component of affirming the church's support for public education, these observers believe, is a clear distinction between the Catholic view and the free-market campaign for privatization.

"On the right there is this libertarian notion of government that is dead-set against Catholic social teaching," said John Coleman, professor of Religion and Society at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. "It's very important to distinguish our case for vouchers from this free-market vision. Otherwise, we get caught in the same dilemma as on the abortion issue, where we share that issue with the religious right, but virtually nothing else."

Strange bedfellows

On this issue, however, the church does not speak with one voice. Some seem untroubled by the public alliance between the church and privatization advocates. "The two are quite compatible," Milwaukee's Norris said. "We may not agree on every issue, but then, politics makes strange bedfellows."

Other leaders, however, are more wary of affiliation with free-market forces. "We have to examine the market model from a gospel perspective," said Sr. Dale McDonald, public policy associate with the National Catholic Educational Association. "We have to articulate that we're not buying into privatization, into a survival of the fittest approach. We probably need to say this more clearly."

The need for clarity is all the more acute, observers say, because the vouchers represent a potential financial windfall for Catholic schools, and the perception of self-interest that prospect creates. "Catholics need to make clear that they are not looking to cash in on the failure of the public system," Henig of George Washington University said.

As the voucher debate unfolds, then, the Catholic church faces a difficult juggling act. The church's commitment to the education of the urban poor gives it clear moral authority to support public policy measures that would allow more children to benefit from that ministry. At the same time, the church must beware of whose interests it serves.

If the church seeks to bring "good news to the poor," it's unlikely it will come in the form of a free market where educational opportunity goes to the highest bidder.

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 1997