Will Catholic Schools Be Left Behind by School Choice?

President Trump restates his commitment to school choice, but a variety of factors may determine whether Catholic schools thrive in any reform.

(photo: Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has asked Congress to work with him to make “school choice” a reality in each state, yet advocates of Catholic education are concerned about the potential effects on the U.S. Catholic school system.

“School choice” references the freedom of a student to go to the school that best meets his needs, whether that be a public school in another district, a charter school or a private school.

It can also refer to putting parents more in control of how their taxpayer funds support their children’s education.

Appearing at a White House event during “School Choice Week,” the president reiterated that school choice had been a campaign promise and remains an important cause for him.

In his remarks at the May 3 White House event, Trump said, “Every child has the right to fulfill their potential, and, if we do our jobs, then we will never have to tell young, striving Americans to defer their dreams for another day or for another decade.”

He asked legislators to “extend school choice to millions more children all across the United States of America.”

School choice has been an increasingly strong movement in education circles, picking up steam especially in the past decade. But not all types of school choice are equal, and some have led to heavy closures in the Catholic school system. While the recently passed 2017 federal budget contained no increased investment in school choice, the 2018 budget blueprint increases by $1.4 billion the amount available for private and public-school choice, eventually reaching an outlay of $20 billion per year.

The budget proposal increases by $168 million charter-school funding and devotes $250 million to a new private-school choice program. The administration has so far not provided any specifics on what types of school choice it will support, but the current assumption by many analysts is that any future school-choice program will be likely either an education savings account or a scholarship tax credit, both of which are often used for private schools.


Supporting Parents

Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank in Michigan, told the Register that it is unjust to force parents of children in private school to pay school-district taxes on top of their children’s tuition.

“It seems quite obvious that something needs to give in this regard, both on the level of justice, but also on the level of quality, in the services being rendered,” he said. Father Sirico suggested tax-credit scholarships, in which individuals or corporations receive tax credits in exchange for donations to scholarship-granting organizations, and education savings accounts (ESA) as ways to help parents. In an ESA, a family is typically given an amount of public money to draw on for their children’s educational expenses, whether in public school, home school or private school.

Presentation Sister Dale McDonald, public policy director for the National Catholic Educational Association, told the Register that her organization also favors a tax-credit scholarship program.

Sister Dale praised the scholarship tax credit as “neat, clean and simple.”

“People donate to an organization; they get their tax break; a kid gets a scholarship,” she said.

Sister Dale also said that her concern would be that “whatever kind of program is developed, it respects the religious liberty of the school, and respects the autonomy of the school” regarding admissions and standards. She also hopes to see a program that is not just concentrated on low-income families, but also pays attention to middle-class families who might not be able to afford Catholic education.

Another issue raised by Sister Dale was additional paperwork and regulations accompanying any federal initiative.

“We don’t want to see a bureaucracy being created around this,” she said.

No one wants to see an unwelcome intrusion by the government into the Catholic mission of the school either. Sister Dale said that few intrusions had been made yet into private schools, but a future administration could create difficulties.

“We’re looking for the cleanest possible legislation that respects the independence and autonomy of the school and respects the parent who chooses the school,” she said.

“It’s important to empower parents. They are the primary educators of their children,” she said.

“While these schools are labeled private, they do perform a public service. Parents who are paying their share of taxes should get some share of it back for the choice they make.”


Charter Schools

The most visible form of school choice has been the charter-school movement, which created publicly funded schools operated independently of the local school district. While teachers’ unions have bitterly opposed their creation, 43 states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws regulating charter schools.

Charter schools were intended by their advocates to provide an alternative for parents to the traditional public-school model, lining up better with parental values while also escaping from the regulations that held public schools back.

Some research suggests, though, that charter schools have been detrimental to the continued existence of Catholic schools. Abe Lackman, then a researcher with Albany Law School, argued that in New York charter schools had a far more devastating impact on Catholic schools than on public schools, noting “one Catholic school has closed for every charter school that has opened” in the previous decade, and around 32,000 students had been drawn away from parochial schools by charter schools.

In Michigan, a RAND Corp. study found a similarly poor outlook for private schools, discovering that one-fifth of charter-school students previously were enrolled in private schools, and “private schools will lose one student for every three students gained in the charter schools.”

But the key to the poor outcomes in these two states seems to have been that laws allowed only public options for school choice.

In states that treat private and public-school options equally in terms of funding, like Florida and Arizona, Catholic school systems have thrived alongside other public options, and enrollment has risen.

And RedefinEDonline.org reported that Florida Catholic schools have seen five straight years of growth, with an increase of around 1.3% this past year.

The school-choice mechanism that many educators credit for the revitalization of the Catholic school system in these states are tax-credit scholarships — the mechanism advocated by the NCEA’s Sister Dale for broader national application. Private individuals and corporations can receive a state tax credit in return for their donation to a scholarship organization.

These organizations then award scholarships to students from low-income families seeking to attend private schools.

Because of these scholarships, the cost of Catholic schools no longer becomes a reason to discourage a family from enrolling.


Arizona Catholic Schools

Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, told the Register, “The beauty of the tax credit is that, without that, a lot of our schools would have had to close. So, while others have been struggling, we’ve been growing.”

Since tax-credit scholarships are not “government money,” Johnson said, private schools are able to benefit, even in states like Arizona that constitutionally bar state aid to religious institutions.

In Arizona, there are more than 50 school-tuition organizations that turn donations into scholarships.

“It’s been a big boon,” said Johnson, “because there are Catholic ones; there are Jewish ones — so people can directly help” the causes and children that they want to.

Any student who has been accepted to a particular school then applies to scholarship organizations to cover the cost of his tuition.

Johnson praised the tax-credit scholarship program in Arizona, because “it’s allowed people to go to a school who otherwise might not be able to attend.”

“From our perspective, I can’t think of any drawbacks. It’s just been a wonderful tool to help those parents who want to use it to send their kid to where it’s best for them.”

Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Rochester, New York.