By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said you can never step into the same river twice. If only to prove ourselves unfettered by the decrees of ancient Greek wags, NCR is once again leading off its annual Catholic education issue with the subject of vouchers.
Actually there are many good arguments for revisiting the voucher issue, including that its the most important question of educational policy to confront either the Catholic church or the country in decades. The best rationale, however -- at least for a newspaper -- is that theres news to report.
For too long, the debate over vouchers has been confined to the airy realm of hypothesis, always having a what if quality, since weve had little experience in this country of how spending public dollars on religious education at the K-12 level might work.
For the past year, however, the rubber has been meeting the road in Milwaukee. In that city, in the wake of a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that allowed the program to proceed, the state has been giving money to parents to enroll their children at any of 87 participating schools, including 40 Catholic schools.
It is too early to know if the Milwaukee program is working, at least as measured by standards such as test scores or graduation rates. But in Erik Gunns detailed report, we learn that hard questions have flared up about the extent to which religious schools can avoid public policies when they take public money.
Religious schools participating in the Milwaukee vouchers program have argued that the usual civil rights standards governing public institutions shouldnt apply to them. Whether that position is tenable -- either legally or morally -- remains to be seen.
Gunn also documents some of the more important Catholic players in the campaign for vouchers in Milwaukee and reports on fissures in the original coalition that supported the program.
The issues surfaced in Gunns reporting ought to provide additional reasons for the Catholic community to think more deeply about the voucher idea.
Heidi Schlumpf provides an overview of another challenge facing Catholic school leaders -- finding and holding onto qualified teachers. Given the surge in the school-age population expected over the next several years, demand for teachers is going to grow ever more intense, and Catholic schools will have to scramble to keep up.
Schlumpf reports on what some Catholic school systems are doing to get ahead of the problem. She includes some remarkably candid, and hopeful, words from Chicagos Cardinal Francis George: In conscience, I cannot indefinitely support a system that pays its teachers, on average, only half of what their peers earn in the government schools, he said at a December news conference.
It may be the former teacher in me, but I think thats one of the best lines Ive heard on Catholic education from a bishop in a long time. Lets hope George backs up those words -- and that his brother bishops are moved by his example.
Patricia Lefevere profiles a remarkable teacher from New York and her equally remarkable program of Holocaust Studies. On a purely pedagogical level, Dr. Barbara Judges interdisciplinary approach, blending art and history and philosophy, is exciting. As an exercise in understanding and empathy, her approach is also inspiring. The program could well be a national model; Judges passion certainly should be.
Finally, Daniel Mulhall from the U.S. bishops conference offers an overview of catechesis today. To glean just one idea from his honest, thoughtful essay, the church obviously has a need for volunteer catechists willing to pass on the tradition -- warts and all, I might add -- to the next generation.
Its an invitation well worth considering.
National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999