The National Catholic Review
An Arizona program proves a lifeline for Catholic education.
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Last spring, the Supreme Court handed down a decision allowing the use of tax credits to fund religious schools in Arizona. This decision should be a tipping point in the resurgent “school choice” movement. The court effectively mapped a route for choice-inclined state legislatures that skirts the First Amendment bar to government “establishment of religion.” Most reactions have defaulted to polarized arguments that pit allies of public education against supposed enemies. Instead, we see the decision as an opportunity to address what President Obama calls “the civil rights issue of our generation”—the unyielding achievement gap between poor students and wealthier students.

Could new funding strategies make a difference? Yes.

Consider the history of Catholic schools in America. In an incisive article published in the spring 2011 issue of National Affairs, Andy Smarick surveys the rise and decline of urban Catholic schools, tracing parallel trends in our society’s ability to educate working-class and immigrant children. Millions educated in parochial schools through the 1960s grew up to make vital contributions to U.S. productivity and culture. Since then demographic shifts, growing Catholic assimilation into the American mainstream and rising costs—along with failures in leadership—have led to the closing of thousands of Catholic schools, especially in inner cities. In the 1960s one in four children in New York City, for example, attended a Catholic school; today, fewer than one in 10 does. The remaining traditional Catholic schools often charge tuition that low-income families cannot afford. A choice in schooling that served society well has all but vanished.

Meanwhile, society’s collective failure in recent decades to educate the very children who most need good schools has been well documented. A black male today is more likely to land in prison than in college; a young Latina enrolled as a freshman in college has about a one in 10 chance of earning a degree.

Cristo Rey and NativityMiguel Networks

Passionate reformers in both the public and the private realms have taken up the challenge to educate children “left behind.” The Cristo Rey and NativityMiguel networks, which we lead, are two examples of innovative, independent, faith-based schools—mostly Catholic in heritage, open to all, founded to serve the urban poor and receiving little support from the church. Both have been cited as models for rejuvenating the vital tradition of urban Catholic education. More than one observer has noted the similarity between well-publicized, pioneering public charter schools and Catholic school models.

Like the best charter school organizations, our schools take responsibility for results. Our schools champion quality, transparency and accountability for student performance—a fair exchange for public trust. Both the NativityMiguel and Cristo Rey networks set high standards and monitor curriculum, professional development, graduate support and academic progress. A partnership with the National Student Clearinghouse, for example, will provide a reliable source of data on students’ educational paths and success after high school graduation.

Why should all of this matter to citizens and taxpayers? Because schools like ours have an outstanding record of success in teaching low-income, minority students. Our graduates master skills, complete high school and pursue higher education at rates far exceeding peer averages.

In the face of enormous need, however, our networks are relatively small. The question of economic viability, which has so far depended on the generosity of private donors and corporate partners, clouds every strategic plan, every vision of transforming more lives by scaling programs to meet the strong demand for them.

We are eager and able to grow faster. And we are not the only ones. At a recent conference organized by the American Center for School Choice, a wide range of faith-based schools found common ground. The expansion of state tax credit programs for education would be one of the most efficient ways to support the growth of strong schools—enabling families to decide which school is best for their children and avoiding some of the most contentious issues by channeling funding through nonprofit organizations rather than through the state or federal government.

Current research on the effects of school choice, in fact, reveals benefits for both students and nearby public schools, according to a study published by the Foundation for Educational Choice (Greg Forster, Ph.D., A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers, 2011). And a nonpartisan report prepared for the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountabi-lity concluded that taxpayers saved $1.49 in state education funding for every dollar lost in corporate income tax revenue due to tax credits for scholarship contributions (Report No. 08-68, December 2008).

Why shouldn’t bold measures be used to tackle one of the costliest, most pernicious ills of modern American society? The human impact of better education for all is not hard to imagine. The economic consequence of bringing all U.S. students up to a baseline level of proficiency for developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, could add $72 trillion to the gross domestic product. Good schools of many kinds—traditional public, public charter, secular and faith-based schools—can hasten progress. We challenge education advocates of all political stripes and lawmakers in all 50 states to seize this moment of opportunity to enact school choice.

Robert J. Birdsell is the president and chief executive officer of the Cristo Rey Network; Mary Claire Ryan is the executive director of the NativityMiguel Network of Schools.

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 11/20/2011 - 9:46am
Raymond Rice (#1),
Thanks for your comment. I was unaware of Eleanor Roosevelt's support of maximum parental choice in public education, as well as its firm embedment in the UDHR.
Perhaps that is one reason most major European nations seem to account for parental educational choice in public education better than we do-and perhaps that is also a reason they perform better than us on the whole. 
C Walter Mattingly | 11/19/2011 - 5:50am
Mr Birdsell and Ms Ryan,
What an excellent and timely article!
Your words here are rain on parched soil. 
When you have been responsible for training the students/graduates of N Florida inner city high schools in retail trade for 29 years as I have and witnessed education deteriorate to the point that a bright young girl in the summer before her senior year with a B average at the local public school, having totalled out an order before pressing the amount tendered button, ask how much change to give a customer with a 27 cent purchase who gave her a dollar bill, and subsequently having trouble comprehending either counting up or subtracting to determine the change, you realize the severity of the problem. What can I do for her? What is her future going to be?

Ditto when entering the public schools as a business partner and seeing the chaos in the halls and classrooms and the expenditure for a new 12-foot -high hurricane fence across the rear of the school to prevent students from escaping during the school day, while visiting the nearby parochial school, same exact demographic, and seeing order and teaching in progress, you are not surprised that the high school graduation rate of those attending the parochial elementary school is 87%, while those attending the public middle school is 57%.

Perhaps the most encouraging prospect, as the article cites, is the effect that a better alternative than the local public school will have upon those schools. The corporate monopoly presented primarily by the NEA, self-interested rather than student-interested (as any dominant corporate monopoly tends to become), will be forced to allocate resources toward the actual student.  Consequently, it will either improve student education, increase days and hours of classroom time, which currently ranks 28th out of 28 OECD countries, or lose its 3% take on teachers' salaries. (I am not claiming the NEA is worse than other corporate monopolies; rather, it is typical of such monopolies.)  When competition is introduced, performance either improves or its market dwindles. And that, likely, would be the greatest benefit of all: faced with the necessity of educating competently, these schools will begin doing so.  

Provide the alternative these inner city parents are demanding. Neither Wall Street nor anyone else will be able to improve the performance of America's middle class if they continue receiving 3rd quartile students and expected to compete with South Korea, Japan, or other better educated work forces. Let's begin to concentrate our efforts not on the entitlement mentality of giving the person a fish, but rather teaching them to fish. One is merely a meal and consumes itself; the other is sustainable and lasts a lifetime.

Viva Cristo Rey! 
Stephen Haessler | 11/18/2011 - 5:27pm
We are blessed in Tucson to have a Cristo Rey school in our city, San Miguel High School. I have seen this incredible school make positive contributions to students and their families. It has become an anchor of development in the neighborhood. It is a gift of vision and dedication. The above article is spot on. We know how to address this issue; vouchers, tax credits, charters, choice. Thank God Cristo Rey and NativityMiguel are acting on the Pope's request that we not abandon a Catholic education presence in American inner cities. Inspiring work! 
raymond rice | 11/18/2011 - 2:20pm
Public  funding of independent (Non - Public  )  education is  a  guarantee of  the Universal  Declaration of Human  Rights( UDHR).  The Chair of the Delegation to write the UDHR , Eleanore Roosevelt ( also the USA  Delegate)  was originally opposed  to  Government  guarantees of free  primary   and secondary  education coupled with the provision that  the parents  be the sole decision maker  of how that  was to be accomplished. She  eventually  was  convinced by her fellow Delegates of the  wisdom of  the parents  given  the decision making  authority.Her original  position  was "We  don't  do that in  America".Her  fellow Delegates(world  class  Statesmen) convinced her  by citing  real examples in  Europe , Asia and the Mid -East, of how  the state took over education and  then  took over the children in opposition   to their parents. The convincing arguments that won USA  support   are in the minutes  of the  UDHR Delegation  Meetings , copies of  which are deposited in  several  Universities. I read them at Columbia University. The political  Left rejects this Human Right , believing that it  will lesson their control of education in America.