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Catholic Education

Some think taking public funding will alter identity of Catholic schools

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

As the national battle over vouchers intensifies, two questions define the frontline: What is constitutional, and what can privatization do to improve the quality of education in the United States?

Within the Catholic church, meanwhile, another debate is emerging: Do the benefits outweigh the liabilities?

"The inevitable consequence of public money is to secularize schools," said Bishop Thomas J. Curry of Los Angeles. "We're determined to have it both ways -- to have schools that are at the same time thoroughly Catholic and also federally financed. But it won't work."

Curry, who leads the Santa Barbara Pastoral Region for the Los Angeles archdiocese, has outlined the contours of this intrachurch debate. He believes that vouchers, or any other system of public funding, have the potential to compromise the Catholic character of church schools.

Further, he believes this possibility has been glossed over in the push for public dollars.

"We've spent so much effort attempting to secure government support that we have neglected the question of definition -- what exactly a Catholic school should be," Curry said. "We're not discussing it because there's too much emphasis on obtaining public assistance."

Curry is one of the few in leadership positions in the church willing to break with the consensus in favor of vouchers. He is quick to point out that he has no problem with vouchers for some inner-city Catholic schools, where the mission is primarily to educate an under-served population.

For schools whose purpose is to evangelize in the faith, however, he thinks public funding is inappropriate.

Such talk rankles many leaders in Catholic education. Curry's comments brought a swift rebuke from Dr. Jerome Porath, superintendent of schools for the Los Angeles archdiocese.

"How can anyone think that an institution that has made so many sacrifices for so many years is now going to drop its mission just because the government offers some dollars to families?" he asked. "It's troublesome to many Catholic educators to hear the suggestion that they so lightly hold their mission that the thought of more dollars would cause it to evaporate."

Nevertheless, the fear that state dollars may sow the seeds of government intrusion speaks to many Catholics already worried about an erosion of the Church's distinctiveness in the face of secular American culture.

"The church absolutely has no business taking government funds," said Llewellyn Rockwell, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Ala. Rockwell, a Catholic layman with strong views on church affairs, writes a column that appears in The Wanderer, a conservative Catholic newspaper.

"He who pays the piper calls the tune," he said, suggesting that when church agencies receive government dollars, they face pressure to conform to secular values.

The concern over Catholicity or the potential for public funding to alter the Catholic character of church schools generally takes two forms. One is a concern that public funding will erode religious identity, as seen in the secularization of such colleges as Harvard and Duke, whose origins were religious.

Most Catholic educators, however, are adamant that this will not happen. "Before we went into it, we were clear that we would run the school the way we always have," said Sr. Brigetta Waldron, OSU, principal of Archbishop James P. Lyke School in Cleveland. The predominantly African-American school on the southeastern edge of the city is a participant in the only voucher program in the United States that currently includes Catholic schools. "If a day ever came when we felt any pressure to abandon our Catholic identity, we would withdraw," Waldron said.

The argument that public funding undermines Catholicity strikes many Catholic educators outside the United States as odd, since America is practically the only developed nation in the world that does not provide some measure of public funding for church schools.

In Canada's Ontario province, for example, the state is the sole funder of Catholic schools, and Catholic teachers and administrators are state employees. Over 30 percent of Ontario's school-age population attends one of the province's tuition-free Catholic schools.

"I've been in Catholic education for 25 years, and for all that time we had some type of public funding," said Michael Moher, superintendent of education for the Ottawa Catholic School Board. "It has never compromised our Catholic identity."

"[Catholicity] is a caution, but if you have the ability to control the curriculum and the ability to control the hiring process, you're in good shape. The bishops should be quite comfortable with what's going on in their communities," Moher said.

Sister of Notre Dame Phyllis Cook, principal of St. Columbkille's Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles, agrees that putting the debate in an international context should lessen some of the fear about Catholicity. "Our congregation has sisters in Great Britain and Belgium, where the government has always paid the teachers without any damage to Catholicity," she said. "We can't be limited by fear of what might happen. We can't let worst-case scenarios prevent us from taking advantage of opportunities."

While a wholesale abandonment of Catholic identity may be unlikely under a voucher plan, some remain concerned about a whittling away of Catholicity around the edges.

Los Angeles archdiocese's Porath, for example, draws a distinction between two purposes Catholic schools serve: preparing students for the world, which requires the best possible education, and evangelizing students in the faith. The former, he said, has to be balanced against the latter.

So, if the government were to offer Catholic schools more resources to enhance the educational experience of their students provided the schools take the crucifixes off the walls, is that a deal Catholic schools would consider?

"If our mission would be better served, we might consider it," Porath said. While Porath was quick to point out that such a move would be contemplated only if the overall deal enhanced the Catholicity of schools, such willingness to consider undoing what generations of Catholics have come to regard as symbols of their schools' identity has some people nervous. "It's a concern," said Sr. Maureen Doyle, principal of the Urban Community School in Cleveland, a Catholic school that elected not to participate in the city's voucher program. "There is a philosophical problem with government involvement in a Catholic school," she said.

While Doyle said that Catholicity was not the reason the Urban Community School opted out of the voucher program, she acknowledged it was on their minds. "I do think Catholicity is an issue," she said.

The second form of the Catholicity debate is less concerned with the specifically Catholic character of schools than it is with the features that come with being private -- local control, flexibility and a spirit that is more communal than bureaucratic. Scholars who have studied the operation of large, state-funded educational systems regard this as a valid concern.

"If I were a strong supporter of Catholic schools, I'd be really concerned about this issue," said Dr. Peter Cookson of Teachers College at Columbia University. "If public dollars flow into Catholic schools, that means the dollars have to be publicly supervised. There will be strings attached, at a minimum in terms of things like civil rights policies. The state could assert minimum standards for teacher training," he said. "In effect, the very quality of a Catholic school that makes it attractive, its autonomy, could be undermined."

Cookson pointed to a 1986 study by Donald Erikson, which showed that when private schools receive state support, they tend to become more like public schools. In Milwaukee, the limited experiment with private school vouchers suggests some legitimacy to this concern.

"There have been subtle attempts to treat non-public schools like publics," said Dr. John Norris, director/superintendent of schools for the Milwaukee archdiocese. "Since voucher kids are students of the Milwaukee public school system, this reasoning goes, the same rules should apply. We have to fight to hold on to site-based management. ... It's the biggest strength of the private sector."

Most Catholic educators, however, appear confident that this is a struggle that can be won. "I'm not concerned about losing our character. This can be worked on [if vouchers are approved]," said Wilma Elbouhnini, principal of Verbum Dei High School in the Watts area of Los Angeles.

Leonard DeFiore, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, believes that both concerns, the religious identity of Catholic schools and their administrative autonomy, are legitimate.

"No matter how benign the legislation is when it's passed, you never know what will happen 10 to 20 years down the line," he said. "When the government provides dollars, regulation seems to follow."

Still, DeFiore believes that Catholic schools can protect themselves against this possibility.

"If we have to choose, we must keep the essence of our Catholic schools," he said. "We need to structure our internal financial management so that we're able to walk away if it comes to that." The key, he believes, is avoiding financial dependence on the state. As long as Catholic schools can do that, he believes, they will be able to resist any pressure placed upon them.

On this point, the international comparisons may not be so heartening. Could, for example, the Catholic schools in Ontario walk away from public funding if the situation called for it?

"Well, I suppose we could," Moher said. "But it would be devastating. Let's hope it never comes to that."

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 1997