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Are Catholics responsible for public schools?

We Americans have come to a quiet acceptance of certain defects in the culture that amount to betrayal of long-held ideals.

We accept that our cities have become horribly divided between rich and poor and along racial lines. Our culture appears willing to concede that any notion of common good has little relevance unless tied to someone's bottom line. We are fast becoming a violent and stingy culture, suspicious of outsiders and increasingly tolerant of the selfishness spawned by a marketplace that is unrestrained by any element other than profit.

But nowhere is the social calamity we are constructing -- and the concomitant betrayal of ideals -- more evident than in the malignant disparity in educational opportunities offered our children. As John Allen's comprehensive look at the problem (page 3) clearly shows, the United States has in place a two-tier education system.

Though exceptions exist, the overwhelming evidence points to a simple dividing line: If the school district is affluent, the education will be good; if the district is poor, the education is probably below standard. While the dividing line separates classes, as Allen shows, the separation too often also occurs along racial lines.

Education, particularly in this high-tech, service economy of the late 20th century, is essential to survival. It is a fundamental social justice issue for U.S. society in general and for the Catholic community in particular.

In the matter of what one critic terms "apartheid education," a stark question arises: What responsibility, if any, does the Catholic community have toward public education?

If only as a matter of pastoral self-interest, church leaders should be concerned about the future of public education since the overwhelming majority of Catholic children attend public schools.

Unfortunately, the education crisis has given this country's extreme right -- both religious and otherwise -- ample material for the kind of alarmist and simplistic rhetoric that sustains its passion. And the vouchers issue, so important to Catholic educators, has, lamentably, provided a large platform from which the rhetoric is pronounced.

"For conservative theorists, two lines of thought on vouchers intersect," wrote Allen in NCR's special section on Catholic education in the March 28 issue. "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."

As a consequence of that passion, public education, one of the truly distinctive achievements of the great American experiment, has taken an undeserved drubbing. It has been crowned by some as the source of all of society's ills.

At the same time, the Catholic schools lobby has piggybacked on the sentiment to earn points in the vouchers debate. Trumpeting that they do a better job for less, Catholic administrators and church officials keep hitting hard for greater funding.

The enormous contributions of Catholic schools are beyond dispute, particularly the work being done these days in the inner cities. The influence people educated in Catholic schools have had on society is proportionally far greater than simple numbers would indicate. But Catholic schools, in the end, cannot do it all.

One might make a reasonable argument for vouchers. But it would be tragic if public education were to be sacrificed in the doing.

Catholic schools, it must be noted -- though it often is left out of the equation -- have the luxury of being selective. They are not required to provide the host of specialized services that are part of the public school mandate. They also get away with paying wages that in most other contexts would be considered grossly unjust.

The push for vouchers need not be constructed along either-or lines. If the arguments for vouchers make sense and are constitutionally strong, there is no need to make a whipping boy of public education.

Even the most ardent Catholic school supporters should see the wisdom in working for solutions to the public school crisis. It would be wise if only for the practical matter of space: Catholic schools could at best serve a tiny fraction of the country's school age population.

Catholics also have serious questions to ask before putting all their energy into seeking government funding. As Bishop Thomas J. Curry of Los Angeles put it in the March 28 issue: "The inevitable consequence of public money is to secularize schools. 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."

Others, obviously, think it will work, as it has in other cultures. But Curry's points -- and he raises essential questions -- should be part of the discussion. So far, the National Catholic Educational Association, the chief lobbying organization for vouchers, has been unwilling to openly discuss such concerns.

On the broader issue of public education, a much deeper matter of fundamental justice is at stake. Most parents who have the means will head for the safest, best school district they can afford. But good education should not depend on where one lives.

In a church so committed to social justice in so many areas, guaranteeing the best education for all should become a church concern. Is there an issue more critical to the future health of American society?

The concern for educating all our children should not be left to the vagaries of the marketplace, as some would prefer. Nor should it be permitted to become captive to the narrow agenda of the religious right, whose proponents love to use the issue to whip up the forces of intolerance.

It is time, instead, for Catholic church leaders and Catholic scholars to weigh into the discussion in a large way, not in a spirit of competition or to point out flaws in the public system to gain political advantage, but in the spirit of finding a way to do justice by all children, not just the offspring of the well-to-do.

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 1997