We’ve heard the myths before. Parents can’t receive public support for their children to attend a faith-based school because that would violate constitutional restrictions. Faith-based schools are selective and homogenous. Faith-based schools shred the social fabric and civic unity. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the myths persist. And, in doing so, they continue to hamper efforts to bring faith-based schools fully into the panoply of choices from which all parent should be able to choose – and which compose public education in the 21st Century.
In its first report to the nation, “Religious Schools in America: A Proud History and Perilous Future,” the Commission on Faith-based Schools lists 10 of these myths – along with the facts that dispel them. The commission is a product of the American Center for School Choice, which co-hosts this blog. Its aim: To cast a brighter spotlight on the value and plight of faith-based schools, which are declining in urban areas where they have long been part of the solution in educating low-income children. The commission is holding a leadership summit in New York City on Nov. 19, where the report will be released. We’ll bring you more information in future posts. In the meantime, we thought the 10 myths worth sharing on their own.
Myth: Providing public support to families to choose a faith-based school violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Fact: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that providing publicly supported scholarships directly to parents, either through tax credit scholarships or vouchers, is constitutional and 17 states now have such programs in operation.
Myth: Religion has never been a significant part of American education.
Fact: Religion was the foundation of education in America from Colonial days into the early 20th century, with states passing laws requiring Bible reading in public schools as late as 1930. Public schools based on religion are not constitutional, but many American families still want to access a faith-based school for their children’s education.
Myth: Few countries provide support for parents to choose a faith-based school as part of their public education systems.
Fact: Actually, in the Western Hemisphere, only Cuba and the United States do not routinely provide public support for parents to make that choice. Most democracies have incorporated faith-based schools among the choices that are open to parents when selecting a school for their children.
Myth: Faith-based schools are well-funded through their religious communities and employ mostly members of the respective religious orders at relatively low wages.
Fact: Although the costs of faith-based schools are lower than traditional public schools, faith-based schools are substantially supported through tuitions. At one time, Catholic schools were staffed heavily by nuns and priests, but currently only 3.2 percent of the staff are in religious orders. The resulting financial pressure, especially for schools serving the poor, has led to a significant decline in enrollment, and since 1990 more than 1,300 Catholic schools have closed. Most of the staffs of nearly all faith-based schools today do not come from religious orders, and although they are paid less than public school staffs, compensation is a significant cost for these schools.
Myth: Faith-based schools are elite, highly selective institutions that do not serve an ethnically diverse population.
Fact: Faith-based schools in every region of the country have been found to be more racially integrated than the district public schools, primarily because the latter draw students almost exclusively from homogenous residential neighborhoods. Study after study reflect that when parental choice programs are available, they move students from more segregated schools to less segregated schools.
Myth: Faith-based schools do not serve special needs children.
Fact: The percentage of faith-based students with an individualized education plan (IEP) varies from 4 percent up to 11 percent with a median of 4.5 percent. That percentage is close to the 5.2 percent national average for school age children reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Myth: Faith-based schools do not serve English language learners.
Fact: The percentage of limited proficient students ranges from 3 percent to 34 percent across the various faiths with a median of 5.3 percent. Again, this mirrors closely the national average of 5 percent of school age children who speak English “not well” and “not at all” reported by the U.S. Census.
Myth: Faith-based schools do not produce students as likely to be civically engaged, politically knowledgeable, or politically tolerant as public schools do.
Fact: The evidence strongly indicates the opposite. Studies conducted in both Catholic and fundamentalist Christian schools found that the faith-based students were more confident and likely to exercise civic skills and displayed a higher level of tolerance than their public school counterparts.
Myth: Traditionally at-risk students, those with low incomes, African-Americans, and Hispanics, are not served well in faith-based schools.
Fact: Utilizing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the positive performance for these at-risk students is striking in faith-based schools. On average, the performance advantage in reading is 1.7 grade levels ahead for black students, 2.5 grade levels ahead for Hispanic students, and 1.6 grade levels ahead for low-income students.
Myth: Parental choice programs that empower families to choose faith-based schools don’t really make any difference in student outcomes.
Fact: From 1998 to 2012 multiple researchers have conducted 12 “gold standard” random assignment studies of voucher programs focused on academic outcomes. This scientific method establishes a control group to compare with the group receiving vouchers, similar to how medical trials are conducted, and yields a high level of confidence that other influencing factors such as students’ background and parents’ education are not affecting the results. No gold standard study has ever found a negative impact from allowing students to attend a private school; 11 of 12 found positive results. Overall, those 11 gold standard studies show that attending private schools (including faith-based schools) increases the likelihood of high school graduation and college attendance, as well as improved reading and math scores.