Wishing the school choice menu truly included faith-based schools

Special to redefinED


Editor’s note: This is the eighth post in our school choice wish series. See the rest of the line-up here.

by Nicole Stelle Garnett

This year, I wish for education policy that embraces authentic educational pluralism.

In a 1991 speech, Father Andrew Greeley — a renowned sociologist who conducted some of the most important research on the beneficial effects of Catholic schools for disadvantaged kids — lamented that the first school voucher would arrive on the day that the last Catholic school closed. Thankfully, Father Greeley’s predictions about the prospects for parental choice have proven overly pessimistic. Today, 20 states and the District of Columbia have parental choice programs that enable some parents to use public funds to enroll their children in private schools, including faith-based schools.

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Father Greeley’s concern about the trajectory of urban Catholic schools was not unfounded. In the last decade alone, nearly 1,500 Catholic schools have closed, mostly in urban communities. These are the very schools that research has demonstrated excel at educating poor minority children. For example, minority students in Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school, and more than twice as likely to graduate from college than their public school counterparts. Research also strongly suggests that private schools appear to do a better job at preparing students to be engaged members of a diverse, democratic society.

Faith-based schools, however, are more than just educational institutions. They are important community institutions. My own research with Margaret Brinig demonstrates, for example, that Catholic schools promote the development of social capital — the social networks and mutual trust that form the foundation of safe and cohesive communities. This research links Catholic school closures in Chicago and Philadelphia to a breakdown in neighborhood social cohesion that leads to increased neighborhood disorder and even serious crime.

Parental choice is therefore not just good education policy, it is good community development policy. Empowering parents to enroll their children in private and faith-based schools opens the doors of high-quality educational options for children who desperately need them, and also can help stabilize critical community institutions.

The education reform movement has justifiably embraced the expansion of high-quality charter schools, and I celebrate policies that make it possible for low-income students to attend them. But private and faith-based schools, especially but not only urban Catholic schools, have long been, and remain, a critical piece of the education reform puzzle.

These are sacred places that serve civic purposes. And, like Father Greeley, I fear they will continue to gradually disappear absent a shift in education policy further empowering parental choice.

Expanding the parental choice menu to include a complete range of educational options across all three educational sectors dignifies poor parents who all-too-frequently feel disenfranchised and forgotten by our educational system. We have learned the benefits of parental choice are not limited to the families who exercise their right to choose charter, private or Catholic schools. Rather, the entire community flourishes when every family has the authentic freedom to choose their children’s schools.

Nicole Stelle Garnett is a professor at the Notre Dame Law School, fellow of the University’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, and co-author of the 2014 book, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America” (University of Chicago Press). 

Coming Wednesday: Gary Beckner, founder and executive director of the Association of American Educators.

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