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Bishops support quality education for all; NCR articles missed mark.

No one surpasses the U.S. bishops when it comes to working for quality education for all, and especially the most vulnerable and poor. The history of Catholic schools in this nation and the number of current high-achieving Catholic schools in the inner cities are testimony.

One would not recognize that, however, from the NCR's March 27 section on Catholic education. Two of the five articles amount to an attack on vouchers and are replete with misstatements, innuendo and selective use of church documents.

Throwing fairness to the wind, the editors attacked the bishops' educational agenda but neither sought to determine the veracity of their charges nor even cited the bishops' relevant and public document on U.S. education. As a result, NCR distorts the bishops' complex and comprehensive education agenda.

The section cited the bishops' 1990 statement, "In Support of Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools," but conveniently ignored the bishops' 1995 statement, "Principles of Educational Reform in the United States." When editor John Allen urges the bishops to speak up for all schools, one wonders if he's even aware that the bishops only three years ago called for the nation to provide for all "a quality education, one that effects a person's intellectual, moral, spiritual and physical development, to all our children, whether they attend a public, private or religious school."

The 1995 statement also stressed that poor and vulnerable children need special attention. The bishops added that as Catholic leaders, their concern goes beyond Catholic schools because most Catholic school-age children attend public and other private schools, and hundreds of thousands of Catholics administer and teach in them.

Among the bishops' stated concerns: high standards for students, the need for appropriate assessment of students and teachers, the preparation of and ongoing development of teachers, financing education in this country and the right of parents to choose where they wish to have their children educated. They conclude with a call to "all of our partners, at all levels of the educational community -- whether public, private or religious -- to join in a collaborative dialogue on how best we can pool our strengths and work toward the attainment of this critically important common goal."

The bishops have gone further, too. They shared that statement with the president, the U.S. secretary of education, all members of Congress, all the governors and the leaders of every public or private professional education group they could identify. In a personal meeting with Secretary Richard W. Riley, as the bishops' education representative, I requested that he convene a gathering of educational leaders to address these issues. Regrettably, the Clinton administration has not seen fit to do this as of this date.

In addition, the U.S. Catholic Conference, in cooperation with the independent Center on Education Policy and the Council of Chief States School Officers, launched an effort to start this dialogue, and most of the major public and private school education groups have expressed an interest in pursuing it. Meetings have been scheduled between now and November to discuss how public and private schools can collaborate to be more effective, learn from each other, pool resources and possibly cut costs.

John Allen carelessly states that the bishops need to "transcend self-interest." What's more to the point is that Editor Allen and NCR should transcend this kind of selective journalism. His statements, which suggest that all the bishops care about are bringing students and dollars into Catholic schools and that they see public education as "the enemy," reflect ignorance of the current reality.

Also out of touch is the diatribe of Stan Karp. He sets himself up as an advocate for justice and common ground and asks for the bishops' support to fight for the renewal of the public schools but substitutes innuendo for fact. His effort to discredit the bishops' support for vouchers, which would give poor children a way out of some clearly failing schools, amounts to opposition to parents' natural and constitutional right to choose the school best suited to their children.

The bishops support the right of all parents, not just those blessed with the economic ability, to educational choice, a justice issue. A real fight for justice would advocate that the poor and the disadvantaged should have that same right as the well-heeled and that the government should assist them in that quest. The Catholic community shows its commitment to this ideal by spending untold millions each year to sustain Catholic schools that serve large numbers of poor and minorities, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

The author's carping denies the fact that no one educational approach addresses the needs of all children. The government -- as well as the church -- needs to support all kinds of schools. At the least, that means that services intended to improve education, especially for the disadvantaged, which are available to students and teachers in the public schools, must be available to students and teachers in private and religious schools. Quality education means working from the "child benefit" approach to educational assistance for all children, but especially those most in need. It's been in operation in some government programs for the past 30 years and has well served the nation's common good.

It is an insult to imply that the bishops and the Catholic school community are involved in some conspiracy with the "fundamentalist Christian right" and are out to undermine multicultural democracy or are a vehicle for the "profoundly antisocial, antidemocratic, antipoor agenda" of any group, because of one issue -- the right of all parents to choose where they will educate their children. The record is clear; Catholic schools have served the common good of this nation since they first opened and intend to do so as long as they are meeting the needs of parents and their children's education. While imagining conspiracies, the ideological point of view adopted by Mr. Karp condemns thousands of today's children to be educationally and socially doomed, without access to schools that meet their needs.

The educational mission of the church -- and of the Catholic bishops -- embraces lifelong learning -- including preschool and after-school; elementary and secondary schools; parish catechetical programs; adult and multicultural catechetical issues; higher education and campus ministry and leadership training. A vital aspect of this mission focuses on Catholic institutions grounded in and staffed by persons inspired by the gospel values of dignity, compassion and justice for all. We must provide Catholic education for our people, and we must provide a viable alternative system of schooling for poor people who would feel better served if they had a choice in education. We will not rest while that mission is unfulfilled in any way.

The Rev. Msgr. Thomas J. McDade serves as secretary for education of the United States Catholic Conference.
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Title Annotation:March 27, 1998 National Catholic Reporter; rebuttal
Author:McDade, Thomas J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1998
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