Schoolwatch: Of Dragons and Catholic School Choice

“Once the dragon is slain,” advised former Secretary of Education William Bennett at a recent conference on education reform, “don’t put another dragon in its place.” Bennett was urging caution upon education reformers as they seek to “end federal tutelage,” that is, undue government involvement in public school education. Advocates of school choice in particular would do well to take his admonition to heart.

The choice programs which eventually prevail throughout the states should first be scrutinized. Flawed programs can lead to the same stifling control by educrats which now cripples public schools. The growing number of Catholics backing choice, especially Catholic lobbyists and other leaders, must be alert to these “choices within choice” and how they will affect Catholic schools. Indeed, Catholic (and non-Catholic) parents have the fundamental right to use their own tax money to educate their children at the Catholic school of their choice. But the very language of the programs adopted will greatly contribute to preserving or destroying the unique character of Catholic schools and their unique contribution to America.

Conservatives wary of big government are among the most severe critics of school choice. In essence they warn that it is basically illegal to use public funds without inviting interference by the government, that is, regulation and bureaucratic control. Some categorically claim that Christian, private, and home schools cannot accept any of the choice alternatives — vouchers, tax credits, or charter schools — without succumbing to government control.

Former Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, and former assistant secretary of education, Chester Finn, Jr., believe that the moment is long overdue to “send education home.” Yet Finn acknowledges that “there will be some new regulations with voucher plans.” According to the Heritage Foundation, school choice can “backfire,” i.e., result in the “onerous regulation of private schools.”

To fully comprehend how full-blown federal school “restructuring” would alter Catholic schools, one need only turn to the federal master plan for public school reform. This blueprint is embodied in the new Clinton education legislation, especially those components known as HR-6, Goals 2000, and School-to-Work. In practice these laws force public schools into lockstep compliance with all-embracing federal “standards.” These standards are deceptively described as “voluntary,” because federal funding, upon which 90 percent of the country’s schools have become dependent (for “at risk” children), is tied to their acceptance. The point is that non-public schools accepting public funds could be similarly commandeered — via regulations and mandates — in the wake of school choice.

The Clinton legislature institutes unprecedented control over, not only school curriculum and testing standards, but many other areas of student, family, and community life. Among a myriad of sobering examples:

• Its treatment of American history is politically tendentious, conformist, and guilt-invoking. The story of this country is reduced, in the words of Lynne Cheney, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to one “of failure and oppression [while] it ignores another story of unmatched principles of political equality and justice. . . . ” The Ku Klux Klan, for instance, is required or recommended as a classroom topic 17 times, while the Constitutional Convention is not mentioned once.

• It distorts world history by emphasizing Western (notably, Catholic) faults, and marginalizing consummate Western accomplishments (again Catholic, as well as those more broadly Judeo-Christian). At the same time it engages in what the Wall Street Journal calls “runaway inclusiveness.” For example, it asks students to analyze a 13th-century papal emissary’s social and cultural biases against Mongols but fails even to name St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, or St. Francis of Assisi (or Moses, Dante, Keats, Bach, Giotto, Tolstoy, and scores of other eminent Western figures).

• It prescribes for different grade levels, in overwhelmingly specific detail, not only physical but “mental, emotional, and social” health directives, in effect further “medicalizing” education. To be exact, it relates 7 “national health education content standards” (such as requiring students to “demonstrate the ability to advocate for family and community health”) to 16 “health education content areas and adolescent risk behaviors” (including “emotional and mental health,” “sexuality,” “family life education,” “community health,” and “consumer health”).

• It requires, in addition, that schools collect data on gender equity, and it micromanages schools’ disciplinary procedures as well as the topics of teacher/parent conferences. In fact, it reduces parents to the status of participants — alongside “professionals” — within school-promoted “partnerships,” wherein parents will be instructed in “child-rearing” (to include regular home visitations and “developmental screening” by “certified parent educators”) as well as held “responsible” for their children’s “positive use of extracurricular time” (such as “television watching”). As for school prayer, it highlights the very rare conditions under which schools can be denied federal funds for violating a student’s constitutional right to pray (specifically, parents would have to go through the expensive and otherwise onerous process of obtaining a federal court order).

• It’s position with respect to school choice is hypocritical in the extreme. According to Alexander and Bennett, joined by Sen. Dan Coates, in the National Review:

While allowing members of Congress to claim they voted for them [school-choice alternatives], [it] actually immobilizes them with rules and conditions. What good, for example, is a school-choice program that lets the ‘sending school’ veto the child’s departure? Furthermore, such shackles will help the enemies of school choice argue a few years down the road that these reforms don’t work.

It should not be overlooked that these new laws may be interpreted as applying to all, not just public school, students. Thus School-to-Work states: “the term ‘all students’ means students from a broad range of backgrounds and circumstances. . . . ” More blatantly, an earlier version of HR-6 contained a provision (later modified, thanks to parental vigilance) that would have required that all home-schooling parents be state-certified teachers. The capacity of state governments to dominate Catholic schools as well should not be underestimated. At present their acceptance of public funds entails mostly benign regulations, concerning, for instance, the transportation of students.

Do such potential threats to Catholic school autonomy mean that Catholics should reject choice altogether? No, for the fact remains that school choice is the only viable means by which to counter the failing, unaccountable, wasteful, and unjust public school monopoly. As Clint Bolick, Director of Litigation at the Institute for Justice, recently responded, “The worst case scenario can be no worse than the status quo now.”

Legislative proposals for school choice, in short, must be carefully crafted to include provisions which protect the independence of all schools. In other words, safeguards against regulations must be written into the laws themselves, so that schools can defend themselves later on against government interference.

Finally, regarding specific protective provisions which Catholics might consider, John J. Miller, vice-president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, cites the June 1994 voter initiative on school choice in California (which was in fact defeated, mainly as a result of powerful opposition from teachers’ unions). Specifically, Miller recommends an earlier version of this proposal: “The initiative would simply freeze all existing private-school regulations and prohibit new ones that do not attain either a steep three-quarters majority in the state legislature or a two-thirds majority of a local governing body followed by a majority of all persons registered to vote in an election.”

Catholic schools have long been appreciated for their strong academic orientation, moral probity, religious grounding, true local governance, and cost-effectiveness. The challenge is to protect this precious institution and allow parents the freedom to educate their children as they see fit. School choice advocates must fully recognize the snares of government: mythically expressed, they must take full measure of — and slay — the dragon.


  • Candace de Russy

    Candace de Russy is a nationally recognized scholar on education and cultural issues and an Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute.

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