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Vouchers and educational equity.

In my last column, "Vouchers: The Heart of the Matter" (May/June 1997), I reviewed Joseph Claude Harris' book The Cost of Catbolic Parishes and Schools, which noted but did not explain the implosion of Catholic schools over the last thirty years. Harris did document, however, that whatever financial problems Catholic schools might have are due mainly to the fact that Catholics, though on average more affluent than the U.S. population overall, support their church and its institutions at about one-third the level that Protestants support theirs.

I concluded that, in campaigning for vouchers for nonpublic schools, Catholic bishops seem far more concerned about the 21 percent of Catholic children in parochial schools than the 79 percent who attend often underfunded or inequitably funded public schools." I made the same point in a letter published April 8, 1997, in the National Catholic Reporter, the leading lay-edited Catholic weekly.

On May 2, the NCR ran writer John Allen's important long article, "Inequity in Funding of Public Education Raises Justice Issues," in which Allen hammers home the point that

the institutional Catholic church

has signaled tacit consent to the

injustices of the public system.

While church leaders have

spoken aggressively to the needs

of Catholic schools, there has

been only discrete silence or, at

most, ambiguous statements of

general principles concerning the

way America's public schools provide

differing educational opportunities

based on class and race.

Allen quotes Notre Dame University Professor Jay Dolan: "Since public schools serve the vast majority of children, the failure of the church to speak out on their behalf should give all of us pause." He also agrees with John Dewey's remark,"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy."

Allen laments the Supreme Court's refusal in 1973 to deal with the wide disparities in educational spending within states and notes that, although a number of state supreme courts have dealt with the issue,there is little to show for it. The problem, he explains, is that equalizing school spending among districts with out raising new money pits rich and poor school districts against each other, while leveling school spending upward runs into popular reluctance to raise taxes. For example, when New Jersey Governor Jim Florio valiantly raised taxes for education, he lost his bid for reelection to pro-voucher, anti-tax Christie Whitman, and the Democrats in the state legislature took a beating.

Per-student spending was higher in major cities in 1950 than in the suburbs, but now suburban per-student spending greatly exceeds that of both cities and rural areas. And, as Allen points out, "Race plays a significant role in allocation of educational resources."

"In the debate over the quality of public education America is prepared to offer its poor and minority children," Allen charges, the official leadership of the Catholic church has been missing in action"While the bishops in 1995 issued a vague statement on equitable financing of education," it seemed more oriented toward getting vouchers for private schools. Allen quotes Monsignor Thomas McDade, secretary of education for the U.S. Catholic Conference, as saying that he is unaware of any effort by the bishops to address the inequities of public school funding. The bishops did, however, file an amicus brief in defense of Wisconsin's voucher plan.

Allen concludes that the institutional church does nothing in the struggle for educational justice, putting its energies behind the campaign for vouchers, "an obsession that distracts attention from other issues."

In the same issue of the NCR, an editorial referred to public education as "one of the truly distinctive achievements of the great American experiment." It quoted Los Angeles Bishop Thomas J. Curry as saying that it is not realistic for church leaders to think their schools can get public funding without eventually having to move away from their religious mission. The editorial concluded:

The concern for educating all our

children should not be left to the

vagaries of the marketplace, as

some would prefer. Nor should it

be permitted to become captive

to the narrow agenda of the religious

right, whose proponents

love to use the issue to whip up

the forces of intolerance. It is

time, instead, for Catholic church

leaders and Catholic scholars to

weigh into the discussion in a

large way . . . in the spirit of finding

a way to do justice by all children,

not just the offspring of the


The words of John Allen and the NCR are timely and important. If the leaders of the country's largest religious body got behind adequate and equitable funding for public education, we would be a lot closer to solving our school problems. And Allen and the NCR addressed only Catholics. All of our faith communities--Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Unitarian Universalists, and the rest--as well as secular communities, businesses, and unions should get on the educational bandwagon. The future of our country depends on it.

Vouchers must be stopped, of course, and the wall of separation between church and state kept high. Vouchers--and I cannot emphasize this enough--would destroy public education; increase educational costs while lowering net educational quality; gradually replace democratic education with sectarian and ideological indoctrination; fragment our society along religious, ethnic, social class, and other lines; and awaken dormant antagonisms.

Incidentally, in Canada, Quebec's provincial assembly recently voted unanimously to end church control over education and go to a system of linguistic-based schools. This follows Newfoundland's 1995 decision to do away with sectarian schools. Debate is now beginning in Ontario about scrapping that province's system of public schools and tax-funded Catholic schools that leaves Protestant and Jewish schools out in the cold. It is truly strange that some Americans want to move toward a school arrangement from which an increasing number of Canadians are moving away.

Edd Doerr, president of the American Humanist Association and executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty, is coauthor of The Case Against School Vouchers.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Church and State
Author:Doerr, Edd
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1997
Previous Article:A reply to Mattel.
Next Article:Sealed with controversy: anatomy of activism at the local level.

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