This week is Catholic Schools Week, celebrated across the United State during the fourth week of January to highlight the good that these schools do for families, the Church and the country. For the sixth year in a row, National Catholic Schools’ Week coincides with National School Choice Week. And while these organizations are not affiliated, they work together to advocate for school choice.
In last month’s National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) Parent Newsletter, the Association states:
“Parents know what is best for their children. And that includes the right . . . to choose the school or educational environment that is best . . . This right, however, should not depend on their (parents) ability to pay tuition to a private school or to live in a neighborhood where the public school system meets the needs of their children.”
In his Declaration on Christian Education (1965), Pope Paul VI made it clear that the right to school choice is a clear and consistent Catholic teaching: "Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools."
Although the Church is clear on school choice, the details of a choice program are critical to its support. Certain principles including the protection of religious freedoms and the primacy of parents as educators of their children are fundamental. With the rise in the cost of education, parental choice is becoming an increasingly significant factor in the ability of low-and moderate-income families to choose a Catholic or any other kind of private education. If parents are not able to receive some financial assistance to exercise their right to choose in a regular and predictable manner, Catholic education and other forms of school choice will decline, becoming less and less available, and serving only the rich.
The Trump Administration has a plan for school choice. The details of the 20 billion dollar plan are being determined but it will involve grants to states that wish to develop choice programs. Both the NCEA and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCBS) would ensure that any such program would not compromise the authenticity and autonomy of Catholic schools.
The idea behind the plan is as follows:
All 11 million school-aged children in the country living below the poverty level could attend a school of their choice. The Federal Government would allocate $20 billion of grant money to states for developing choice programs. States would be asked to collectively contribute an additional $110 billion so that the parents of all 11 million of these children could choose a school of their own — private, home school, online, public or charter.
States that already prioritize school choice would receive preferred status for these grants. In Utah, charter schools would fulfill the criteria for a choice program but whether or not private schools, online schools or home schools would be included would remain to be seen. So far, Utah has only allowed school choice for publicly funded charter schools.
All school choice plans at all levels of government involve a heated political debate and process that could alter and even defeat the proposal from becoming law. If the above plan were to survive such a process, there are a number of questions that would need to be answered: 1.) How will the money be allocated and what government conditions will be attached? 2.) If funding follows students to religious schools, how would the religious freedoms of these schools be respected? 3.) What could be done about those families living slightly above the poverty level and middle-class families who would not be eligible and yet are nearly as needy? 4.) How would religious and private schools adjust to the diversity that would impact their schools if such a plan became law?
The plan that has been articulated is a large initiative for school choice in America. It will be developed and debated by Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education There will be a long, hard fought political battle for this plan to ever become law. But the plan is the first serious attempt by the Federal government to aide families in the fundamental right that they have to direct the education of their children. We will see what happens. Happy Catholic Schools Week.
Dr. Galey Colosimo
Principal, Juan Diego Catholic High School