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Vouchers no panacea for Catholic schools

In a 1997 symposium at Columbia University on vouchers (government programs that offer parents public money to send their children to private schools), Bishop James McHugh of Camden, N.J., said the following:

“In order to have someone express the interest of the Catholic church and Catholic schools, you could have invited any bishop in the United States. Any one of us would have said the same thing. We all have the same interest -- we are unequivocally supportive of a voucher system that will benefit parents, children and all schools but will include (in the ‘all schools’) Catholic schools as well.”

McHugh’s assertion of an unequivocal consensus among the bishops in favor of vouchers cannot help but seem a bit hasty in light of comments made by Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry of Los Angeles in Erik Gunn’s story about Milwaukee’s voucher program.

It’s not that Curry opposes vouchers, but he clearly worries about their impact. Curry’s argument (drawing on his background as a scholar of church/state relations) is that in order to take public money, Catholic schools will eventually have to treat religion as something separable from their secular education programs. The secular components could be publicly funded, while the religious instruction would remain a church responsibility.

By and large, Catholic education leaders deny this will happen under vouchers. They argue that parents want the schools to maintain their religious identity, giving them a powerful incentive not to compromise.

Yet the principle that schools have distinguishable religious and secular components is embodied in the “opt-out” provision of the Milwaukee law, which allows parents to excuse their children from religious activities. The provision has not yet been tested, but if pushed it would force Catholic schools to decide what’s religious about what they do and what isn’t.

As Curry points out, this may be a viable model -- offering a largely secular educational experience with some religious elements around the edges. Yet Catholic educational leaders argue in other contexts that religion is all-pervasive in Catholic schools, that they exist primarily in order to promote the faith. They can’t have it both ways, Curry says, and voucher plans sooner or later will force them to choose.

Curry says that when he’s explained his concern to other bishops he finds it resonates with many of them, cutting across the usual ideological divides.

Curry and McHugh should not be set in opposition, as if they represent opposite poles of the voucher debate. Yet, one wishes that McHugh and others, in their eagerness to embrace public funding, would listen more carefully to Curry’s doubts. Perhaps they should slow down the lobbying long enough to hold a really thoughtful national conversation about whether this is the road for Catholic schools to go.

Gunn’s reporting also shows that religious schools in Milwaukee are facing a host of thorny questions about whether they must obey civil rights laws. Will Catholic schools, for example, face lawsuits about discrimination in the hiring and promotion of homosexuals? Will Catholic schools be obligated to serve students with special needs?

The lack of clarity on such questions is another indicator that Catholic leaders may need to think more carefully about the consequences of accepting public funding.

It is ironic that at a moment when Catholic colleges are engaged in soul-searching about whether their religious identity has been compromised by adopting secular models and taking public funding, Catholic education at the K-12 level seems to be moving in just that direction.

Perhaps that’s the right decision. But there are some hard questions out there, and we should be grateful to Curry and others for raising them. Let’s hope they get a hearing.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999