NEW YORK — Best-selling author Tom Wolfe calls himself a “lapsed Presbyterian” but said he knows a good thing when he sees it. In addition to the moral formation Catholic schools give children, “parochial schools work.”

“I'm not Catholic, but I have eyes,” the author of The Right Stuff and Bonfires of the Vanities said in an interview. Wolfe spoke to the Register prior to a March 1 dinner that raised over $1 million for an organization that helps inner-city elementary school students to go to private or parochial high schools.

“The Catholic system has kids from the same demographics as the public school system — and teaches 10% of all the students in [New York] city. The difference in the results is very striking.”

He said 85% of the city's Catholic high school graduates go on to college, compared to 27% of public school students. He added that the parochial school system gets the job done at a fraction of the administrative costs.

Defenders of the public schools point out that Catholic schools are not required to accept all those who wish to attend as public schools must, and they are also free to expel problem students. Parents who make the sacrifices to send their kids to parochial schools also tend to emphasize education to their children and provide them with discipline at home.

Wolfe is having none of it. “The obvious lesson of all this is that [New York City] should hand the whole thing over to the Catholic Church — and do it tomorrow,” he said.

Wolfe admitted that he was exaggerating, but said his plan would alleviate a lot of problems very quickly. “We talk so much about root causes,” he said. “We don't have time to live with root cause.”

In his dinner appearance on behalf of the Student/Sponsor Partnership, Wolfe couldn't stop pointing out the benefits students derive from Catholic schools. He admires the “higher purpose” for which Catholic schools strive. They teach, among other things, what he calls “bourgeois values,” including honor, duty, patriotism, peace, order and educational initiative. “What more could you ask for?”

Religious Protection

As for any church-state constitutional conflicts, Wolfe said he “would remind the Supreme Court that the purpose of that amendment is to protect religion from the state, not the other way around,” he told the 600 people at the dinner.

While state funding for students in private and parochial schools through vouchers remains mired in politics, Wolfe and other members of the business and philanthropic communities support private voucher programs to give usually poor and minority students a choice about where they go to high school.

This invariably helps Catholic schools, which are widely recognized for not abandoning even the worst inner-city neighborhoods.

Most of the 20 New York schools attended by the beneficiaries of the Student/Sponsor Partnership are Catholic.

That includes Cabrini High School in upper Manhattan where 52 students are assisted by the program. Jannett Santana, a senior, has two sponsors, one of whom is Philip Purcell, chief executive officer of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. He not only pays part of her tuition, but he stays in touch on a regular basis. The school also provides him with a copy of her report cards so he is aware of Jannett's academic progress.

That's the formula Peter Flanigan envisioned when he founded the partnership in 1986, ensuring that benefactors not only help pay students’ way but also get involved in their lives as role models, mentors and tutors.

Flanigan, an investment adviser at Warburg Dillon Read, and John Hennessy, chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston and one of the partnership's first sponsors, were honored at the dinner.

Building Confidence

“I've become a lot more confident because of the sponsors,” Jannett told the Register. “When I get a little worried about doing well on a test, I think of how they tell me about how proud they are that I've done so well, and that helps me.”

Her classmate, Nathifa McGill, believes that without the partnership, she would be like many of her public school friends who haven't applied for college yet, even though they are seniors. Nathifa has been accepted at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and she credits counselors and teachers at Cabrini for pushing students to strive for higher goals.

“Education is the greatest resource or attribute anyone can gain,” Danforth Starr, a former investment banker with Dillon Read, told the Register, explaining why he has sponsored students in the past.

Discipline

Anthony Llano, a 1994 graduate from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx with the help of a sponsor, told dinner guests: “Inner city youths don't lack the desire to succeed; they don't lack intelligence. They have the potential to think and to learn.

“What they are in dire need of is structure and discipline, two qualities parochial schools have been able to offer.”

Anthony's point registered with Wolfe because it was the Catholic schools’ emphasis on discipline that first got his attention.

In preparation for an earlier talk to business leaders on the role of computers in education, Wolfe interviewed public school students and teachers about a host of subjects. “I talked to a young woman who, out of a sense of altruism, started teaching the fifth grade in the North Bronx, and she quit after a month and a half. She couldn't get the class quiet for a month and a half,” Wolfe told Investor' s Business Daily in January.

“She was told by the administration the following: This is not a hierarchical structure that we have here. You are not a teacher in the old sense; you are a facilitator. This is an open classroom. You are not an authoritarian.

“She went over to a parochial school in Spanish Harlem to observe, and here were those rigid desks that she had been warned were so inimical to learning. There was absolute order in the classroom. That got me interested in parochial schools.”

John Burger writes from New York.