Catholic Campaign: Why Catholics Support School Choice

Education reform has become one of the most public and controversial issues facing our country today. The recent trials and tribulations of Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and his school choice program are evidence that Americans recognize the need for improving our nation’s schools, but that the best method for doing so is less certain.

Thompson’s program, which grants taxpayer-financed scholarships to low- income students to attend public, private, or religious schools, passed the Wisconsin legislature earlier this year and was supposed to go into effect this past September. After a number of students applied for the scholarships and made arrangements to go to their new schools, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld an injunction filed by the ACLU and other like-minded organizations which suspended the program until the Court could review it’s constitutionality. Governor Thompson fully intends to fight this battle to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his state will be represented by Kenneth Starr, former Solicitor General of the United States.

The Wisconsin case is typical of a number of school choice and school reform movements across the country. Powerful opponents of these programs argue against their fairness, constitutionality, and effectiveness. American Catholics have been largely supportive of these reform measures, and this support has been one of the important factors in their growing strength.

School choice is an issue of basic social justice. Overwhelmingly, our urban educational systems are grossly ineffective and oftentimes ridden with drugs, violence, and crime. Educational achievement for the students these schools enroll is at, or near, the bottom of the national statistics. School choice programs give less fortunate students, those who are most desperately in need of a quality education, an opportunity to escape a system which has no incentive either to perform well or improve itself.

Another reason Catholics have been so supportive of school choice programs goes back to the sovereignty of the family unit and the opposition to interference by the state in family and religious matters. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is explicit in its endorsement of educational policies which give power to families to educate their children with the religious and social values they prefer. Indeed, the U.S. is one of the last remaining Western countries to deny educational choice to its citizens.

Our public education system has become so intolerant of any religious values that President Clinton and Republican Congressional leaders alike have addressed the issue in recent months, and it is clear that many parents are hesitant to enroll their children in public schools which are more likely to be hostile toward, than share, their family’s values. School choice programs which allow attendance in private and religious schools would address this problem by allowing all parents to decide the proper school environment for their child, whether that is found in a public, private, or religious school.

Opponents of these policies have offered a range of reasons why school choice will not or cannot work. The first is the issue of the separation of church and state, that public tax dollars should not subsidize religious institutions. The fact is the present system merely discriminates against students from the first through twelfth grades; government financed student aid makes education available to college students attending Notre Dame and Yeshiva University alike. Financial aid is also available to pre-school students who attend religious schools. It is primary and secondary school students who are currently not allowed this option. Another objection is that school choice will destroy the public school system. The fact is that school choice will only give the public system the missing incentive it needs to improve. Schools which improve will survive, and schools which do not will be forced to close.

Overall, school choice programs have had few legislative successes thus far, but support for them is growing across the country. Recent near victories in New Jersey, Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Arizona have been followed by clear victories in Wisconsin and elsewhere. The number of politicians running on the issue is increasing, and with more battlefronts, the power of the mammoth teachers’ unions which bankroll the opposition to these programs will be diluted. For the future of our country and our children, we can only hope that school choice programs will continue to proliferate and take hold.

  • Michael A. Ferguson

    Michael A. "Mike" Ferguson (born 1970) is an American Republican Party politician who served as member of the United States House of Representatives representing New Jersey's 7th congressional district from 2001 to 2009.

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