Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education. He also teaches at Aquinas Learning, a classical Catholic homeschool program led by his wife Rosario. They have five children.
School choice, an important issue for Catholic families and a priority for the Church, may soon become a key issue in the presidential race.
Donald Trump has said that school choice will be a centerpiece of his platform, and his campaign this week hired Rob Goad, an advisor to Illinois Congressman Luke Messer, to develop education policy. Hillary Clinton can be expected to oppose whatever he comes up with. Although she strongly supported public charter schools in the 1990s, she appears to be backing away from that, adhering more closely to the positions of the two major teacher unions that have endorsed her.
Meanwhile, Catholic families are in the breach. Despite impassioned efforts for more than half a century to secure Catholics’ fair share of education spending, and despite strong public support, school choice programs are scattered across several states and provide insufficient help to middle-class families.
Moreover, in an age when Catholic trust of government officials has been bruised and beaten by increasing violations of religious freedom, many Catholics are rightfully nervous about school choice. Can Catholic schools ever take public aid without risking attacks on their Catholic identity?
It’s an extremely important question. Trump has touted school choice as a means of lifting up the children of low-income and minority families, but he hasn’t devoted nearly enough attention to the assault on religious freedom. And if by “school choice” he means funding public charter schools just as his opponent did, that does nothing to help families choose Catholic education and throws more money at a failing government system.
Catholics need to stand unified behind certain principles and demand that politicians and legislators support them. They include:
- Parents have a primary right and responsibility to educate their children, and therefore they must have the freedom to choose an education that teaches their faith and values without government intrusion or persecution.
- Catholic schools must have the religious freedom to teach the Catholic faith and values without government intrusion or persecution, regardless of their receipt of public funds or their participation in taxpayer funded programs available to other private schools.
- Any public funding for education should respect the right of parents to choose the school that is best for their child, and funding should follow the child—not discriminate against religion by funding only secular, government-run schools.
But most importantly, Catholics need to stand unified in demanding faithful Catholic education from our schools, opposing any compromise of the faith for the sake of public funding or secular prestige.
The right to school choice is a clear and consistent Catholic teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own personal convictions. This right is fundamental” (2229).
The Second Vatican Council taught: “The public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children” (Gravissimum Educationis, 6).
And in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI told educators at The Catholic University of America that “everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that [Catholic schools] are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”
Vouchers are the most direct means of school choice. The principle remains sound: any public funding for education should follow the child to the school of choice—Catholic or otherwise—and should not be defined as institutional aid that is subject to “strings” affecting schools. Some form of voucher is available in more than a dozen states, including Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Nevertheless, Catholics are understandably shaken by the Obama administration’s outrageous efforts to compromise our faith and values through healthcare regulations (in the HHS mandate) and education funding (by distorting Title IX regulations to demand compliance with the radical gender ideology). California recently sought to severely punish those few remaining Catholic colleges that uphold Catholic teaching on gender and marriage. For the most part, it’s student aid—not direct institutional aid—that puts Catholic schools and colleges under the thumb of secularist politicians.
So there’s due concern about government intrusion, but other forms of school choice may be safer. For instance, Oklahoma’s Education Savings Accounts are fully parent-controlled and never require a government check to be sent to a school. Many states have individual tax deductions or credits to help pay educational expenses. Some of these are refundable; in South Carolina, for example, low-income families can receive up to $10,000 per student in tax credits, including a rebate for the portion that is larger than what families owe in income taxes. Sixteen states allow tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds, which then help students attend schools of their choice.
Homeschooling, which is growing rapidly in the United States, is another form of school choice. Parents have the option, usually with minimal state regulation, to provide a faithful Catholic education at home using the curriculum of their choice (or making).
On the other hand, some forms of “school choice” are a direct threat to Catholic education. An America magazine writer recently urged dioceses to turn over Catholic schools to public school bureaucrats, making them public charter schools. That’s not saving Catholic education; that’s abandoning it. And as noted above, plans to pour money into expanding public school choices only strengthen the public school monopoly on education funding and discriminate against religious schools.
Catholics should demand school choice, because it’s our right—but we must never lose sight of our own responsibility to provide our children a Catholic education at any cost, without compromise. Whatever the circumstances in which we live, it’s necessary that we ensure the formation of mind, body, and spirit that prepares the young to serve God in this world and the next. Religious freedom is our right, and faithful Catholic education is our obligation. May God grant us both.