Bush Addresses Catholic Educators at White House, Pushing Vouchers

WASHINGTON — President Bush praised Catholic education in a speech to a gathering of Catholic educators in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 9.

“Catholic schools carry out a great mission — to serve God by building knowledge and character of our young people. It's a noble calling. It's an important part of the fabric of America,” Bush said.

The occasion for the presidential speech was the 100th anniversary of the National Catholic Education Association, which was holding a convention in the nation's capital.

In attendance at the speech were Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas, who serves as the association's board chairman; Bishop John Cummins, bishop emeritus of Oakland, Calif.; and Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus.

“Catholic education in the United States has a rich history and tradition that dates to the earliest settlement of our nation,” National Catholic Education Association president Michael Guerra said in a statement.

Bush's commendation of Catholic education and educators “is testimony to the importance of Catholic education to this nation,” he said.

“By teaching the word of God, you prepare your students to follow a path of virtue and compassion and sacrifice for the rest of their lives,” the president said. “And by insisting on high standards for academic achievement, Catholic schools are a model for all schools around our country.”

Bush highlighted the success of Catholic education, noting that some 99% of the 26 million children currently in Catholic elementary and high schools will graduate and go on to college.

“Even though the per-pupil expenditure per classroom is low,” he noted, “the results are extremely high.”

“You challenge what I call the soft bigotry of high expectations,” the president told the Catholic educators.

“I'm gratified that President Bush has acknowledged the important contribution of Catholic schools to American education,” said Jay Greene, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office. “Researchers have consistently found that Catholic schools produce better outcomes for low-income and minority students who have floundered in the public system. And Catholic schools are able to improve students’ achievement with a fraction of the amount spent per pupil in the state-operated schools.”

Helping Others

Continuing his administration's commitment to accountability and school choice, the president acknowledged Catholic education's role in serving all children of all denominations and backgrounds.

“An important part of Catholic education is the commitment to serving what our society calls the disadvantaged student, regardless of religious affiliation,” he said. “I appreciate that a lot. These are the students who sometimes in the public-school system are deemed to be uneducable and, therefore, are just moved through the system. The Catholic schools have done our country a great service by a special outreach to minority children, who make up 26% of the enrollment of our Catholic schools. This is a great service to those children and their parents and our country.”

The president also took the speech as an opportunity to recap his administration's work in passing the No Child Left Behind Act and urged the U.S. Senate to pass a $14 million a year plan for government-funded tuition grants for Washington, D.C., families to use in private schools.

The district's public schools, whose students are predominantly black, are frequently referred to as “in crisis” — plagued by inner-city crime and drug problems as well as a corrupt bureaucracy. District of Columbia schools have the lowest scores in the nation on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a standardized test.

But not everyone is on board.

“Beginning the flow of tax dollars to inherently religious schools will violate deeply held religious beliefs about the need for separation of church and state,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “President Bush should actually be concerned about increasing education spending for all students instead of supporting the religious education of some.”

Though the D.C. voucher program is opposed by liberal civil-liberties groups, it has managed to garner some bipartisan support on Capitol Hill — including from the city's Democratic mayor. A District of Columbia school-choice plan passed by Congress in 1998 was vetoed by then President Bill Clinton.

Recognizing Success

Bush's praise for Catholic education is in keeping with an increasing recognition of the success of Catholic schools in the United States and their valuable contribution not only to the lives of their students but also to the whole of education in the United States.

Sol Stern, author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, has written about “the invisible miracle of Catholic schools,” saying, “Catholic schools are a valuable public resource not merely because they so profoundly benefit the children who enroll in them. They also challenge the public-school monopoly, constantly reminding us that the neediest kids are educable and that spending extravagant sums of money isn't the answer. No one who cares about reviving our failing public schools can afford to ignore this inspiring laboratory of reform.”

With recognition from the likes of the president of the United States, though, that “miracle” is invisible no more.

The stakes in the president's highlighting of Catholic education and support for school choice are high not just for children in the United States but for the administration as well.

“There's a chance that school choice will become for the second Bush term what testing and accountability were for the first: the main driver of overdue reform for American K-12 education,” said Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and former Education Department official. “Since the president's signature No Child Left Behind Act became law in early 2002, two things have changed: First, Congress is — albeit hesitantly and with much fussing — finally on the verge of okaying a limited voucher program for the District of Columbia, an important precedent for federal policy.”

“Second,” Finn continued, “we're seeing that the public-school-only version of choice embedded in No Child Left Behind simply cannot work in most places. Pushing choice ahead from Washington, however, means that the president must unravel a great political paradox: Democrats who represent its main beneficiaries are joined at the hip with a public-education establishment for which it is anathema; and Republicans who believe in it represent suburban constituencies that are smug about their public schools and loath to open them up to city kids. If George W. Bush can thread that needle, he will be the greatest education reformer ever to occupy the White House.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online.