What choice for Catholics?

We woke up the other morning to a somber radio voice intoning the following: "Every child in America has the right to a good public education." It was one of those ubiquitous "public service announcements'' (read: commercials) from one of our teachers' professional organizations (read: unions).

While the loose use of "rights," as in "everyone has a right to a good job" and "everyone has a right to a safe and free abortion" was troubling, the other word that stopped us in that announcement was "public," as in "the right to a good public education.'' While both of us are former public school teachers, we have used past columns to raise the question about the legitimacy of the government, that is, the state, to decide not only that all children must attend school, but to decide what our children should learn.

John Silber, the retired chancellor of Boston University and almost governor of Massachusetts, once said in our hearing, "The most important thing you can teach a child is that he's going to die!" Okay, but wouldn't the Christian want to add "and that you are a child of our Loving God?" If we accept this amended statement to be, at least, a very important outcome of our responsibility (and our right, by the way!) to educate our children, something has gone wrong. That last part about our loving God is not allowed.

Critics will rightly say, "But you Catholics aren't compelled to send your children to the state-run schools. You have choice." But do we? Given the costs of education, changing demographics, the exit of so many low-paid religious teachers and, yes, a certain weakening of the Catholic will, Catholic schools are suffering. In theory, the choice is there, but few families can seize it. Our once robust and superior school system has been under enormous pressure. Between 1990 and 2008, 1,300 Catholic schools that once educated 300,000 children have been closed. Now 89 percent of America's children attend public schools, a system that Time Magazine recently reported was thought to be "in crisis" by 67 percent of Americans.

There is a solution to both the crisis in our public schools and the injustice of having to educate Catholic children in a, de facto, irreligious and often anti-religious, secular school system. The solution is again choice. Not the phony choice currently offered, but true educational choice.

In 1955, economist and Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman wrote a truly seminal article, entitled "The role of Government in Education," in which he argued that the government should fund schooling, but not run the schools. In essence, Friedman proposed that the government give parents vouchers to attend the school of their choice.

At the time, Catholics, both clergy and laity were hopeful that the voucher plan would enable them to keep Catholic schools afloat and moving forward. We did not count on the self-interested power of the teachers unions or the deep-seated animus toward our religion from secularist groups, such as the ACLU.

Educational choice has not developed in the way proposed by Friedman and hoped for by many Catholics. The idea of offering parents an option to select the school of their choice has taken several forms in the last three decades. However, all these forms of choice have been within the public school system.

First, there were magnet schools, schools of choice focusing on areas such as science or the arts. Then came "for-profit" schools, where public school districts out-sourced their failing schools to private firms. Many of these, like the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) have been quite successful, operating as they do on principles long established in Catholic schools.

Charter schools are the most widely known example of this choice-morphing. Charter schools are public schools, run within a system, but with guiding "charters" and much more flexibility in terms of methods, content and assignment of teachers. Parental involvement and selection by lottery are major features. Freed from "central office" constraints, charter schools often focus on specific cultures, such as Afrocentric, Native American or Arabic; but not on a "religious culture," such as, Roman Catholicism, for instance.

Charter schools have been "the darlings" of the educational reformers in foundations and government. And while they are extremely popular with some 1.3 million students attending and long waiting lists of applicants, their academic promise has been disappointing. Seen by many parents and reformers as the solution to our failing public schools, recent research reveals that only 17 percent of all charter schools out perform traditional public schools.

However, charter schools have presented a major problem for urban Catholic schools and Catholic parents. They are siphoning off students from parochial schools. It is simple economics. In 2008, the Boston Public Schools spent an average of $13,847 on the schooling of each child. To parents struggling in this tough economy, even the bare bones tuition required of Catholic schools cannot compete well with a free charter school.

Catholic parents must demand real choice and control the education of their children. Almost 20 years ago, priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley realized what Milton Friedman missed. Knowing the depth of anti-Catholicism in America, Father Greeley predicted that the first real voucher would arrive on the day that the last Catholic school closed. Let's hope he is wrong.

The fundamental questions in education have always been, "What is most worth knowing? What must we teach our young?" Parents have the primary responsibility regarding by whom and how these questions are answered. The state, on the other hand, like every institution, is committed to its own growth, survival and flourishing. For government educators, therefore, to be the decision-makers about what ideas will go into the heads of our children should be a matter of grave concern.

George Orwell foresaw the problem in his novel "1984," where Big Brother, again, the state, had ironclad control of education. While the parallels to Communist countries like China, North Korean and Cuba are clearest, Orwell's prophetic message speaks, also, to our current educational world. He who controls a child's mind controls the future.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited "Why I Am Still a Catholic" [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.