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With so many minority children trapped in failing and disordered public schools, school choice has become an issue of social justice.

Kevin and Marilyn
Ryan

The battle for school choice has begun in earnest. The recent election, and confirmation of a pro-school choice advocate as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has moved the injustices of our current educational monopoly under the microscope.

We Catholics are, and have been for generations, the victims of the blatant prejudice behind our country's educational public educational system. Sadly, everyday Catholics and much of our hierarchy have surrendered to the idea that "separation of church and state," means our tax monies cannot and should not be used to support an education that includes instruction in one's religion.

First, the phrase, "separation of church and state," is nowhere found in our Constitution. Most European and Commonwealth countries have policies whereby government funds follow children into the schools of their choice: public, private secular, or private religious. The four best known "school choice" countries are the Netherlands (nearly 70 percent of students are in religious schools at government expense), Belgium (nearly half), Chile (nearly a third) and Sweden (nearly a quarter). Canada, Australia, France, Denmark, and several other advanced countries also provide government funding of religious private schools based on parental choice. We, in the U.S., are the odd ones out of step.

Critics of the movement for school choice counter that every American, including Catholics, have the freedom to send their child to a religious school. And, yes, at one time, we did have a vast Catholic school system. We paid our taxes to the state and out of our pockets we built and supported a huge network of parish-based elementary school and local high schools. But that was then and this is now.

By the mid-1960s, enrollment in Catholic parochial schools had reached an all-time high of 4.5 million elementary school pupils, with about 1 million students in our high schools. In 50 years, the country's Catholic population has more than doubled, and the percentage of our children in Catholics schools has been reduced to one-sixth of what it was. Today, the total Catholic school student enrollment for the current academic year is less than 2 million.

There are many reasons for the shrinkage of Catholic schools. While a significant cause has been the loss of the legions of nuns, priest and brothers who were the backbone of our schools, the major cause is today's spiraling cost of education. Dollars have driven Catholic school after Catholic school out of business, and thus Catholic students are ushered into the arms of increasingly secularized and troubled public schools.

We Catholics pay federal, state and local taxes, and a significant portion of those monies are returned to the public schools. The amount of our tax money going to public education has risen dramatically in recent years, so now our public schools are spending on average over $12,000 per student per year. In our town, Brookline, this year's expenditure per pupil is north of $19,000. Meanwhile in New York City, the public schools are spending $23,516 per pupil. In effect, the government is increasingly extracting tax dollars from religious parents and making it increasingly difficult to pay for a religious education for their children. Under the current regime, school choice is, de facto, a luxury only the rich can afford.

But what is so wrong with sending our children to public schools? Some in our cities and many in our wealthy suburbs have good schools. For one thing, our public school system is failing miserably. Like most monopolies, lacking real competition, they have become complacent and increasingly ineffective. And it shows.

According to the recently released rankings of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which annually measures the academic achievement of students across 35 major nations, the U.S. schools are not keeping up with our trading partners. Two years ago, our schools ranked of 26th out of 35 in terms of academic achievement. In this year's report, our public schools we have slipped to a lowly 31st place.

But test scores in reading, mathematics and science, as important as they are, are hardly the sole criteria of a solid education. What about the formation of good character? Two months ago, Paul Peterson and his team of Harvard researchers reported on their national survey of public and non-public school parents. One of the topic is the schools' teaching "character and values." They found 21 percent of public school parents are "highly satisfied" compared with 59 percent of non-public school parents.

And what about the primary reason we have Catholic schools: the transmission of our faith? Today, the public schools enroll 90 percent of America's 52 million school-aged children. The overwhelming percentage of Catholic students are thus spending 12, 13 or 14 years in schools, which by law, are areligious; schools, where teachers are justifiably afraid to acknowledge the existence of God; where an attitude of cynicism and skepticism toward religion is widespread.

The leadership of the Catholic Church in America understands fully we are failing to pass on the faith to our young. We know, too, that those young people who claim to be members of the Church have, in fact, little knowledge of what it means to be Catholic, a weak commitment to the Church's mission in the world and a most limited awareness of who Jesus Christ is. This is the definition of a church that is going out of business.

This current situation is dire, unjust and clearly discriminatory. But there is a solution, even one that can bypass the phony "separation of church and state" objections: Give the tax monies to the child, not the school, as other advanced nations do. As was recently approved by the Nevada courts, returning funds to parents for the education of their children, instead of being coerced to send them to state controlled public schools, is permitted by our Constitution.

Catholics are faced with a religious problem that demands a political answer. With so many minority children trapped in failing and disordered public schools, school choice has become an issue of social justice. One political party is financially beholden to the nation's teachers unions. Out of sheer self-interest, these unions are committed to the status quo.

Today, political power is shifting. The White House and both chambers of Congress are in favor of some form of school choice. Catholics need to seize the moment and insist that religious Americans have their share of the tax monies to send their children to schools of their choice.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.

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