The National Catholic Review

Bob Chase, president of the country’s largest teachers’ union, the 2.3 million-member National Education Association, has nothing good to say about school vouchers. Mr. Chase occasionally writes brief essays that the N.E.A. inserts as paid advertisements in selected newspapers. In one that appeared in the Oct. 13, 1996, issue of The Washington Post, he conceded that in various big cities some "public schools are failing." He also knows, though he did not say so, that many lower-income parents in those cities strongly support proposals for government-funded vouchers that would allow them to send their children to local private, including parochial, schools.

But vouchers, Mr. Chase said, "represent a defeatist strategy." What we should do, he added, is invite "these good people" to become partners in the redemption of their communities’ public schools.

An excellent idea, surely, even though there is a whiff of condescension in its phrasing. Still, it is only a general proposal for undefined future action. Mr. Chase coolly overlooked a partnership in education that already exists and has useful implications for the voucher question.

This partnership is a historical reality as old as the United States itself. American education has over the course of two centuries grown into a vast and complex enterprise that involves two distinct systems, public and private. Of course these differ greatly in size. Today there are approximately 86,000 public and elementary schools that enroll more than 50 million students. There are also some 26,000 private schools, one-third of them under Catholic sponsorship, and these enroll more than five million studentsonly a tenth of the public school enrollment but more than the total population of Norway or Denmark or Ireland.

The state schools are fully supported by tax monies; the private schools receive at best only auxiliary benefits. All the same, from the nation’s point of view, the two systems should be considered partners, because together they provide the schooling for almost all American children. (Only a tiny fraction are taught at home.)

Neither President Bill Clinton nor Education Secretary Richard W. Riley talk much about this uneven partnership, if they acknowledge it at all. This is odd, since as a child the young Billy Clinton traveled into Hot Springs to attend the local Catholic parochial school because it was better than the county school closer to his home.

On the other hand, the managers of Catholic schools like to call attention to the civic role played by nonpublic schools. It is true that at the turn of the century, some Catholic bishops would have been suspicious of this partnership talk, but even then their voices weren’t the only ones heard.

The ups and downs of this public-private school relationship happen to have been nicely dramatized in three scenes played out in the middle-sized city of Milwaukeetwo of them last year and one 93 years ago.

Scene One: July 1907. The organization known as the Catholic Education Association, later to be called the National Catholic Educational Association, is holding its fourth annual convention in Milwaukee.

At the first general session, Archbishop James E. Quigley of Chicago gives the keynote address in Marquette University’s auditorium. Now that the Catholic school system has been developed, he tells the conventioneers, "We must endeavor to keep it aloof from the interference of other systems. It is the only system of Christian education in the land, and it should be preserved from the contamination which will inevitably follow contact or alliance with the un-Christian systems of education existing outside and around it."

Tough talk, but this was not a unanimous opinion. Milwaukee’s own Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer was more inclined to cooperation than to isolation. At the pontifical Mass opening the convention, he said, "The purpose of the school and the school system of any nation is to work with the great powers in education for the making of good, honest and efficient citizens."

That was a bit cloudy, but it is fair to assume that the archbishop would have defined "good citizen" and "great powers in education" from the viewpoint of a Catholic Christian and not from that of a totalitarian. He wanted to make the point that Catholic schools serve very well the social and patriotic aims of American democratic society. In this sense they are, as he said, "public schools in as true a sense as any public school of the land...the schools of the people, the schools of the citizens of the land."

The emphases of the two archbishops might be combined in a single slogan: "Interference, no; cooperation, yes." It is a theme that was echoed at a news conference in Milwaukee last year.

Scene Two: June 9, 1999. Some years ago, when Spence Korté was principal of a Milwaukee public elementary school, he arranged for the rental of space for his kindergarten classes in St. Catherine’s, a nearby parochial school building.

Mr. Korté is now the city’s public schools superintendent. Today he and the archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert G. Weakland, O.S.B., held a press conference at St. Catherine’s. They announced that Milwaukee’s public and Catholic schools would be cooperating to create what Mr. Korté hoped would become the best all-around school system in the countryone that works, he said, for all children "public, private and parochial."

At that moment, the specific details of this collaboration had not yet been determined, but Mr. Korté pointed toward their overall aim: "By creating partnerships with our Catholic schools and learning with and from each other, we are building better-educated students, satisfied parents, stronger schools and a more successful community."

An archdiocesan spokesman, Jerry Topczewski, noted that there are more Catholic students in Milwaukee’s 160 public schools than in its 44 Catholic schools. "We need to make sure," he said, that "all educational opportunities are good options." Or as Archbishop Weakland put it: "It is important to the archdiocese that the public schools succeed in their mission.... Supporting all teachers and students in our city is an important mission of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee."

It is reasonable to assume that this press conference was more than a casual gesture made upon the spur of some genial moment. Archbishop Weakland and Superintendent Korté are very likely eager for the parochial and public schools to be seen as partners even thoughand precisely becauseMilwaukee has the best-known school-voucher plan in the country.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, as it is called, was first set up in 1989 by the Wisconsin Legislature under determined prodding from Representative Polly Williams, an African American from Milwaukee. It was amended in 1995, and under its present form it provides financial aid in the form of tuition vouchers for low-income parents who want to send their children to qualified nonpublic schools.

The vouchers are worth up to approximately $5,000 annually, and there are, of course, conditions. The children must come from relatively poor families; the state payments go to the child’s parents or guardian rather than to the school itself; and the program includes a "freedom of conscience" clause that allows students to opt out of religious instruction if they choose a church-affiliated school that requires such classes.

Quite predictably, the M.P.C.P. had to navigate legal rapids. A trial court, followed by a state court of appeals, ruled that the plan violated an article of Wisconsin’s constitution that forbids payments from the state treasury "for religious seminaries." On June 10, 1998, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and concluded that the revised M.P.C.P. offends neither the establishment clause of the First Amendment nor the laws of Wisconsin. A few months later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review this decision and thereby left the Milwaukee program standing.

In Milwaukee this academic year there are approximately 7,996 children from low-income families using state-funded vouchers at one or other of 91 private schools. Many are Christian schools, and many of those are Catholic parochial schools. All of them are partners with the public schools in the indispensable work of educating the children of Milwaukee. Nevertheless, there are observers both within the city and outside it who take the dimmest possible view of this voucher experiment. One of those critics from elsewhere is Rudolph F. Crew, who prefers to be known as Rudy. From October 1995 to December 1999 he was the chancellor, that is to say the head, of New York City’s public school system.

Scene Three: Oct. 14, 1999. The annual meeting of the African-American in Education Conference is underway at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Rudy Crew, as one of the country’s best-known African-American public school administrators, is a principal speaker. He receives a standing ovation when he attacks Milwaukee’s voucher program, which he calls a mere proxy for real investment in schools. "At times," he says, "I want to go to the map and cut out Milwaukee. You’re causing me pure hell in New York."

Two days later, Dr. Crew may have felt even more aggrieved. The New York Post, one of the city’s three major dailies, often goads the chancellor. In its Oct. 16 issue it commented on his Milwaukee speech in an editorial titled "Rudy Crew, Boo Hoo Hoo," which began: "Here’s another reason to love school vouchers. Rudy Crew hates ’em."

The editorial writer then conceded that "the educrats are so well entrenched in New York that vouchers aren’t a remote possibility hereat least until long after their utility has been proved everywhere else."

This snappy editorial points toward one reason for Dr. Crew’s Milwaukee outburst. Although the chancellor has been well paid since he came to the city in October 1995, the position itself does no more to nourish inner serenity than does the job of coaching the bottom team in a professional sports league.

Rudy Crew, who is now 49, grew up in the Hudson River city of Poughkeepsie some 60 miles north of Manhattan. He graduated there from St. Mary’s parochial school in 1964, and it is said he also served as an altar boy. Twenty-nine years later he became superintendent of schools in Tacoma, Wash., after taking a doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts and holding administrative posts in the public school systems of Boston and Sacramento.

He did not stay long in Tacoma. In July 1995 the Tacoma school board raised his salary to $125,000, and it was distinctly displeased when he quit three months later to accept New York’s offer of $195,000. In August 1998 the city’s board of education raised that annual salary to $245,000, which made Dr. Crew better paid than New York’s Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the state’s governor, George W. Pataki, and President Bill Clinton.

All the same, big-city school superintendents elsewhere might not find the New York chancellorship alluring despite the dollars. This is the nation’s largest public school system, and size alone makes it nearly unmanageable, even though it is subdivided into 32 local districts. In October 1995 the city’s leading papers took care to remind Dr. Crew that he was taking charge of a system that had at that time one million students and some 65,000 teachers, a number more than twice that of Tacoma’s 32,000 students. The press also thoughtfully recalled that in the dozen years before Dr. Crew’s arrival there had been four chancellors, only one of whom had lasted more than three years.

Unlike the ill-mannered tabloids, The New York Times was steadily sympathetic toward Dr. Crew, but it never had much good news to highlight. Consider a few of last autumn’s bulletins. On Nov. 7, 1999, The Times noted that the city’s public school children had performed poorly on certain state-imposed tests. For instance, 77 percent of its eighth graders failed to meet the math standards set by the state. On Nov. 16 The Times reported that New York City has a disproportionate number of uncertified teachers. Naturally so; the city’s pay scale is much inferior to that of the better suburbs.

From the start, Dr. Crew said he aimed at substantial changes in New Yorkwhat is currently called "systemic reform." He has conceded, however, that he never reached that goal. In an interview last June with a Times reporter, Anemona Hartocollis, he said, "I’d give myself a strong C." Later on, he seems to have decided he deserved a better mark. On Oct. 13 he told reporters from The Daily News that he rated a "strong B, B-plus."

Certain professional observers were not persuaded. That same Oct. 13 Daily News story reported that Seymour Fliegel, president of a research group called the Center for Educational Innovation, said, "I give him an A-minus for rhetoric and an F for implementation."

For the most part, however, New York City’s seven-member board of education supported Dr. Crew. Any reservations were general and politely expressed. Mayor Giuliani was also a positive thinkerfor a while. That was news because the mayor had often found fault with Dr. Crew’s immediate predecessor, Ramon C. Cortines, and had voiced his criticism in the prosecutorial style that is his trademark as a former crime-buster.

At first, the two Rudys, as The Post and The News called them, seemed to get along famously. When the chancellor celebrated his 46th birthday in September 1996, Mayor Giuliani gave him a box of Primo Del Rey cigars. It was said they liked to puff away together at their weekly meetings. At this time, the mayor told a Times reporter that Dr. Crew was "doing a very good job." He conceded that they sometimes had disagreements but said "that doesn’t in any way interfere with our way of doing business or our friendship."

In fact, the friendship had been strained earlier that very month because of a problem for which there seemed to be a neat partnership solution. The public schools had begun the 1996 fall term with 1.06 million students. Some schools had empty seats, but the system as a whole was almost 10 percent over capacity. Dr. Crew estimated there would not be seats for upwards of 96,000 students.

At this point, Dr. Catherine T. Hickey, superintendent of schools for the New York Archdiocese, offered to find places in Catholic elementary schools for about 1,000 children. She stipulated that these be drawn from the lowest five percent of public school students. There was a reason for that risky qualification. Albert Shanker, the long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers regularly complained that parochial schools seemed to perform better than most public schools because they were able to reject unpromising students. At a conference some six years before his death in February 1997, he taunted Catholic schools: Take the lowest five percent of public school children and see what you can do with them.

Dr. Hickey was picking up that challenge with three conditions. The children’s families would have to volunteer for this experiment; the newcomers would be expected to share in the Catholic schools’ religious education program; and the project would have to be supported by public funds or private philanthropy.

Mayor Giuliani thought this was a great idea and so did The Daily News and The Post. Chancellor Crew and The New York Times did not like it at all and warned that it would be unconstitutional if public monies were used. The mayor then announced that he would raise the dollars needed from businesses and charitable organizations. Dr. Crew retorted that if City Hall wanted to implement the proposal, "they are on their own." The Board of Education would not even help to select the participating students.

IMCOMPLETE

John W. Donohue, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Maureen Gilbert | 1/19/2007 - 12:38pm
With regard to the article by John W. Donohue, S.J., “School Tales from Two Cities” (3/18), I believe the fundamental flaw in all arguments in support of tax credit comes from a misunderstanding of what a public service is. Governments need to provide education for our children, and that is supported by tax dollars, just as are other public services such as roads, public transportation, police, etc. If you don’t like the quality of these you can often pay money to afford a better standard for yourself. What I believe is really at issue is parents’ not wanting to feel that they are paying twice for their children’s education: once in taxes and once to a Catholic school. Having been single and having paid large taxes that mainly went to the public school system, perhaps I can offer a perspective: A good public school system protects the value of your home; a good Catholic education protects the value of your children. Don’t confuse the two.

Maureen Gilbert | 1/19/2007 - 12:38pm
With regard to the article by John W. Donohue, S.J., “School Tales from Two Cities” (3/18), I believe the fundamental flaw in all arguments in support of tax credit comes from a misunderstanding of what a public service is. Governments need to provide education for our children, and that is supported by tax dollars, just as are other public services such as roads, public transportation, police, etc. If you don’t like the quality of these you can often pay money to afford a better standard for yourself. What I believe is really at issue is parents’ not wanting to feel that they are paying twice for their children’s education: once in taxes and once to a Catholic school. Having been single and having paid large taxes that mainly went to the public school system, perhaps I can offer a perspective: A good public school system protects the value of your home; a good Catholic education protects the value of your children. Don’t confuse the two.