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Educational inequality is a dangerous malady

This week’s stories on magnet and non-magnet schools (see A tale of two schools) were done by students in a journalism class at Xavier University, New Orleans, at the invitation of Editor-at-Large Arthur Jones, who saw some of the students’ reports on the issue during an early fall visit to the campus.

That visit was the basis of Jones’ stories about Xavier in NCR’s annual Colleges and Universities issue (Oct. 16, 1998).

While at Xavier, Jones challenged the students to expand their reporting to provide a more detailed look at the local situation, in addition to considering the national dimensions of American education’s “savage inequalities,” in the memorable phrase of writer and activist Jonathon Kozol.

The resulting coverage gives a limited but graphic picture of a shameful situation that is evident in varying degrees across the country. It is significant for at least two reasons: First, it displays an area of strong interest for this group of young journalists and, second, it advances an extremely important story that NCR has covered in far greater detail in the past (NCR, May 2, 1997).

Granted, the issue is not receiving a lot of ink elsewhere. Nor is it lighting up the public imagination or indignation. The fact that it is a silent issue, however, makes it no less dangerous. The public school system, with all its inequities, represents, as one critic told NCR in an earlier issue, “the last vestige of de jure discrimination in America.”

Save for a handful of generalities buried in official position papers and the work of a few activists, the Catholic church’s voice has been mostly absent from any discussion of injustice in public school funding. Its energy has gone into obtaining vouchers, essentially a share of public money, to boost its own system. Some speculate that because of its lobbying efforts on vouchers, the church has stayed out of the larger debate on school funding, not wanting to be accused of bringing hidden agendas to the table.

However, even if the most generous voucher program imaginable were available tomorrow, the larger problem would hardly be diminished.

It is important to note, first, that most Catholic children do not attend a Catholic school. The vast majority attend public schools.

In terms of the general population, of the nation’s 43 million students, only 2.6 million currently attend Catholic schools K-12. The best estimates from the National Catholic Educational Association predict that Catholic schools might be able to add only 5 percent, or 130,000, to its current student population without a massive program of new construction.

So even with the best case scenario in terms of vouchers, the landscape is likely to remain largely unchanged for more than 40 million kids, many of them Catholic.

The gross inequities in education that exist from one political subdivision to another across the length and breadth of this country are the ingredients for a social explosion, if ever the public wakes up to the fact that educational opportunity in this society is provided almost entirely on the basis of class and race.

The problem is glaringly obvious. There are no easy answers, no magic wands. But ignoring it is tantamount to lighting the fuse and waiting for the fallout.

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999