Column: Localize, don’t politicize, our schools

By Robert Sirico

In my work as a pastor of an inner-city Catholic parish that also boasts K-12 and preschool programs, I witness daily the sacrifices parents and guardians willingly make to provide their children with the classical culture and education that permeates our curricula. Public schools mired in administrative and bureaucratic growth are perpetually stuck in neutral when it comes to adequately preparing many if not most students as they pursue their passions.


I know too many parents who ardently desire alternatives to whatever au courant pedagogical methods are often untested yet still implemented in our government-run counterparts but aren’t well-connected, don’t have the freedom or the means to choose the education best for their children.

That’s sadly because parents who send their children to parochial schools in the United States pay twice for their children’s education: once in taxes that underwrite a sprawling, national public-education complex, and again in tuition for the smaller, personalized schools that their children actually attend. This added household expense is largely the legacy of anti-Catholic sentiment from the Know Nothing era of the mid-19th century, during which native-born Protestants sought to limit Roman Catholic migration and subsequent opportunities and political influence. As a result, too many state constitutions restrict the freedom of families to choose how their own taxpayer dollars are spent on their own children’s education.

In an end-run around discrimination, certain states have enacted tax-credit scholarship programs to empower parents. Patrons – corporations and individuals alike – who support a scholarship-granting organization are given a tax credit, and students who are trapped in failing schools are given a way out. That these programs have grown in funding and participation only further evidences the power of educational freedom.

The country’s Catholic bishops might be expected to support students who use such scholarships, many of which opt to take their money to Catholic schools. But it seems that prayer may go unanswered.

Bishop George Murray, chairman of the education committee, wrote to Congress last year on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to advocate for the design of a federal tax credit scholarship. The bishop suggests that a federal program is “in keeping” with the Catholic faith, and proposes that it “must ensure real opportunity to access non-government education.”

While the bishops’ intention seems right, it is dangerous to promote a federal mandate in which “qualifying families in all 50 states must be able to access a scholarship [emphasis mine].” Now, the bishops’ conference eschews the label of a mandate and instead calls it “access.” But those tempted to pray to Washington to grace their states with “choice” risk making government into a golden calf. It’s no secret that a mandate would authorize the federal government to oversee state-run scholarships and would only grow the size of an already bloated bureaucracy in Washington.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (full disclosure: the secretary served on the Acton Institute of which I am president) said as much in a bold speech to the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation last week. “When it comes to education,” DeVos said, “no solution -- not even ones we like -- should be dictated by Washington, D.C.” To see the woman who presides over our country’s education bureaucracy actually articulate a position that diminishes the role of the federal government is a sight to behold. DeVos, who belongs to the Dutch Calvinist tradition, holds a position that happens to be far closer to the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity (that needs are best met at the local level) than what country’s Catholic bishops preach.

“When it comes to education,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said, “no solution -- not even ones we like -- should be dictated by Washington, D.C.”

DeVos urged bishops, who still bare scars from religious liberty battles with the Obama administration, to imagine a federal program run by an administration “hostile” to the faith. That is a warning spiritual shepherds ignore at their peril.

But make no mistake, “every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education,” DeVos said after highlighting Megan Koepke, a young student who recently graduated from my parish’s school. “But those are decisions states must make.”

Simply put: what works in one state may not work in another. An “opt-in” approach is more desirable to top-heavy federal mandates and is more manageable at the local level. States, and for that matter municipalities, would have flexibility to provide education freedom to families who know better than federal planners. Not only is opting-in on a state-by-state basis preferable, it has a better chance passing Congress. A 50-state mandate has no chance.

Matters of education policy are prudential choices, which is to say they are non-dogmatic and there can be a legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics. So the bishops’ conference can -- and I pray -- will show prudence rather than boxing families in on mechanisms.

This may be the last chance in a very long time to undo the historical injustice of prejudice against parochial schools.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion in Liberty, is pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Parish in Grand Rapids, which hosts an Academy offering full-time Montessori and K-12 programs along with part-time schedules for 2nd through 12th grade via homeschooling partnerships.