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Justice issues are common ground for Catholic, public school alliance


For 20 years I’ve been a classroom teacher in Paterson, N.J., one of my state’s poorest and least successful school districts. I’m used to seeing reforms wash over my district like waves on the Jersey shore, occasionally carrying in a fresh breeze, though more often erasing past efforts and only making room for more short-lived footprints.

But it is only recently that I can remember hearing so much talk of abandoning public schools altogether. Politicians call for their replacement by charter schools, vouchers and other market mechanisms. Poor parents seek alternatives for their children in communities where school failure has reached desperate proportions, and a me-first, dollar-driven culture resists the collective obligations that a system of public education implies. In a word, the common ground of support on which public schools depend seems to be eroding.

One of the constituencies that has been especially receptive to arguments for “choice” is the religious community. In fact, the rhetoric and political maneuvering around choice have frequently found Catholic and other church groups in a de facto alliance with the fundamentalist Christian right. Though these religious voices come from very different places, they have sometimes merged together in a chorus of complaint about public education that has included demands for everything from vouchers to full privatization of the public schools.

The tacit coalition that has united voucher advocates on one side against supporters of public education on the other is alarming for several reasons:

* Despite their high profile and divisive impact as a wedge issue, vouchers remain a marginal matter, diverting attention and funds from the central issue of how to provide quality education for all our children.

* The far right’s crusade against public education is at odds with -- indeed, is ultimately a threat to -- the vision of religious communities committed to social justice.

* The survival and renewal of public education is vital to the prospects of nourishing a multiracial democracy in the next century, and public schools desperately need the moral, material, political and community support that churches and religious groups can provide.

A response to problems

It is easy to understand why many Catholic educators see in vouchers a legitimate response to real problems. Changing demographics and the crushing costs of sustaining good schools in poor areas are overwhelming what Leonard DeFiore, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association, has called the “historic mission of the church to give priority to the poor.”

Given these pressures, Catholic educators are quite naturally attracted to the influx of funds and students that vouchers could bring. But if, in the best traditions of the church’s teachings on social justice, they rise above considerations of narrow self-interest, they will find compelling reasons to seek common ground with public schools and the communities they serve as both fight for renewal.

The 2.6 million students who attend Catholic schools account for roughly half of the 10 percent of all school-age children who are enrolled in private schools. By 2006, the National Center of Education Statistics projects that just over 6 percent of the nation’s 54 million school-age children will be in private schools.

This means that the great majority of children, including Catholic children, poor children and children of color are and will continue to be in public schools. Neither vouchers, nor charter schools nor other choice reforms will change this (though they may seriously undermine the public schools left behind). For all the attention and rhetoric about vouchers over the past decade, there are just two small experimental voucher plans operating today, in Cleveland and Milwaukee. They involve small fractions of the school population in those cities, and the results have been, at best, quite mixed.

The limitations on voucher programs stem not just from the strong opposition of those who fear their impact on public schools. They remain largely a rhetorical matter of service to politicians because they hold no practical answers to the current crisis of education. No voucher program proposed anywhere can come close to making alternative placements available to the majority of students now attending public schools. The schools and seats do not exist, and the astronomical costs of creating them are not part of the voucher package.

Typically, voucher plans involve the transfer of funds from public to private schools rather than new, large investments in education spending or school construction. Vouchers are about investing less in the public education we make available to all children in order to provide a government subsidy for the private education of some children, and they do so in the interests of a much broader political and ideological agenda.

Even a synthetically created, government-subsidized market in education will do for educational services in poor communities only what markets have done in areas such as health care or housing. It may create profitable opportunities for some well-financed investors and allow a few more fortunate education consumers to buy their way out of troubled schools. But it will also reproduce the class and racial inequalities that various customers bring to the market with them. Nor would vouchers give urban poor and working parents effective “power” over the schools any more than food stamps have given them “power” over the local supermarkets.

Right and just

Ultimately our children will be educated not because there are markets to exploit and profits to be made, but because collectively, we as a society decide that it is right and just to do so. It is social justice that insists on the community’s collective responsibility for educating all our children, just as we should insist that they have health care, food and a safe place to live.

For the great majority of children, and especially poor children, this means that we must make public education succeed, or we will all suffer the consequences (though the burdens will fall disproportionately on children of color and poor communities.) The quality of schooling available to students in our public schools must be the concern of everyone, including Catholic educators and religious organizations.

The NCEA has said that it has “a special concern for the children of the poor. These children are our children, too.” Should not such a concern translate into a program of action on behalf of what is virtually the last remaining public institution where the children of the poor, the middle class and the affluent still come together to pursue a common democratic vision of equality and justice for all? Doesn’t it necessitate at least as many special lobbying efforts on behalf of equity in school funding, smaller class sizes, new school construction and expanded school/community services as there have been on behalf of voucher programs that, even supporters must recognize, represent a retreat from government commitments to equalizing educational opportunity across our society?

In describing the struggle to keep Baltimore’s Catholic schools open a few years ago, Cardinal William Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, declared “If we abandon the children in the city, I don’t know what other hope they would have.” An educational agenda that gives priority to vouchers is but a variation on this theme.

The single-minded pursuit of vouchers threatens to turn the Catholic church, still by far the largest single private-school voice, into a vehicle for the profoundly antisocial, antidemocratic, antipoor agenda of the right. Much as the Republican Party has become a bridge to respectability for far-right proposals from Star Wars to privatized prisons, the voucher movement has been a bridge to respectability for an ideological crusade against public education.

For the right, public education is the last bastion of “socialism,” a “government monopoly” run by overpaid unionis

Political rhetoric has done a good job of disguising the matter, but the core issue we face in education is not “choice,” it’s inequality. There are many thriving examples of public districts that provide exemplary education for their students (and many Catholic families have moved to such communities to provide these advantages for their children.) In New Jersey, the children in Princeton can take courses in Russian and Chinese during the day and play water polo and lacrosse after school. In Paterson, where I teach, all children don’t yet have full-day kindergarten.

When we tell some children that the community will provide the education they need and others that they will have to look elsewhere, we are fooling only ourselves.

As the late educator Ron Edmunds put it, “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

ts that promotes atheism, sexual deviance and drug abuse. Like taxation and fluoridated water, public schooling is opposed on ideological grounds as an invasive extension of government authority. This opposition takes various forms including dramatic increases in homeschooling and private schooling. (While Catholic school enrollment has been dropping by nearly half, the number of students in evangelical Christian schools has risen almost 800 percent). It also takes the form of promoting wedge issues to mobilize supporters against the public system including: school prayer, creationism, censorship, sex education, homosexuality and vouchers.

This is not a right-wing conspiracy. It is a social and political movement, a well-financed, well-staffed, multisided campaign, with populist, corporate, academic and media wings. It includes the Heritage Foundation’s “game plan” for promoting school privatization on a state by state basis, the Landmark Legal Foundation’s search for new test cases to break down church/state separation, the Bradley Foundation’s campaign for vouchers and similar organized efforts. And if the right has its way, and if the progressive religious community is not heard from clearly and strongly enough, this crusade will enlist the considerable weight of the Catholic church and other religious groups in the service of private self-interest against public commitments to justice, equality and democracy.

This is the danger that the religious community must face squarely. It must balance not just the budgets of hard-pressed religious schools, but also the scales of educational justice. It must weigh the dubious benefits of government subsidy (with inevitable consequences many have not yet thought through) against the democratic ideals of public education and the welfare of the children that system must be made to serve.

This is what the past president of the Los Angeles school board, Warren Furutani, meant when he said the fight over vouchers was a “battle for the fundamental soul of public education in a democratic society.”

As rhetorical as that may sound, for supporters of public schools -- especially those in poor communities -- it speaks to a devastating social reality. Over the past 20 years, in cities like Paterson, the network of church groups, neighborhood associations, cultural institutions, social service organizations, civil rights and other community groups -- not to mention families -- along with the schools, has faced a huge increase in human and social need with a diminished capacity to respond. These groups have a more crucial role to play than ever before, especially as government retreats from previous commitments. But unless these institutions band together as rallying points for struggling communities, they may well be overwhelmed, all the more so if they allow themselves to become pawns in a polarizing debate.

Schools are desperately in need of constructive partnerships and coalitions of community concern. Some school reforms, like the much-praised Comer Project, are explicitly based on trying to step into the breach and recreate the community and family support system that once helped schooling work. There is good evidence that such approaches can succeed. But to pursue models of civic reconstruction on a large scale will require a strong movement focused on social justice that challenges existing social priorities and structures of privilege and fights to secure the necessary investment of human resources and money.

Black church support

It will also require the support and active participation of religious groups, including new and creative relationships at the school and local levels. What these possibilities might look like is suggested in some seeds now being sown, especially by black churches that, despite scarce resources, have responded actively to the crisis in their communities. More than half of all black churches have at least one nonreligious educational initiative, most often tutoring, extended child care or subsidized field trip programs. Other black churches, with help from some foundations, have begun parent support and education services. Still others have opened computer centers, organized “midnight basketball” or provided scholarships.

As important as this material support is, there are even greater possibilities. Public schools need a new alliance with the communities they serve, and churches could play an important role in shaping it. Just as parents in many communities have organized to move beyond bake sales to take roles in setting policy and helping to manage school life, so, too, could representatives of religious groups move beyond ritual participation in graduation and holiday ceremonies to more substantive involvement.

Catholic parents could turn out for local board meetings and join school site committees to advocate for all the children in the school. Catholic and public school educators could engage in joint staff development and dialogue around common issues, like providing effective family supports for student achievement, either in their districts or in appropriate professional organizations. Churches might join parent and teacher groups to help convene citywide “education summits” and mobilize communities to address school issues, from safety to multicultural programs to parent education and access. And Catholic and other religious educators can assume a position of special credibility when they speak out on behalf of the whole community against efforts to cut funding or withdraw support from public schools.

Educators have learned the hard way that we must teach the whole child, and the “whole village” must be part of the process. Although there are differences in settings and specifics, Catholic educators and public school people can learn from each other about the importance of making all children feel valued, about respecting the role families must play in school life and about giving broader purpose and context to educational practice. If an atmosphere of mutual respect for diversity and a democratic process of dialogue for differences can be created, there are few reasons to fear and many reasons to support a greater involvement of churches and religious groups in the life of public schools. If we can put the wedge issues aside, and come together on behalf of children, it would be a strong point of departure for a historic effort.

Forging coalitions

Civil rights activist Bernice Regan once said, “If you’re in a coalition and you feel comfortable, your coalition isn’t broad enough.” Forging a coalition on behalf of public schools that includes churches, religious groups, along with parents, community and educators will not be easy. There are thorny issues and lots of history to overcome. But if we keep in focus the democratic ideals of public schooling and the vision that the civil rights movement first raised about the role public schools could play in building a better, more just society, if we act in the social justice traditions of religious movements that have spoken up in the past for the poor, for workers, against war and for peace and justice, then there is reason to believe we can find a common path.

If educators, parents and communities of faith make common cause around a commitment to help public schools succeed, instead of emphasizing the narrow issues that keep us apart, both our children and our society can only grow stronger.

Stan Karp is a high school teacher, an editor of Rethinking Schools (a progressive education journal) and cochair of the National Coalition of Education Activists.

National Catholic Reporter, March 27, 1998