Considering Catholic Schools at the Start of the Year

Chemistry Teacher with Students in ClassThis post originally appeared at America magazine as “Are Catholic Schools Bad for U.S. Education?”

In just 24 hours an article written by Allison Benedikt on Slate titled, “If you Send Your Kid to Private School, You are a Bad Person,” elicited more than 5,000 comments from readers. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why.

The title Benedikt, an editor at Slate, selects is not misleading at all. She truly asserts that, as her article’s first line proclaims, “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school.” Elsewhere she uses the following description to illustrate her point: “Many of my (morally bankrupt) colleagues send their children to private schools.” Ouch. This is harsh.

As Benedikt rightly admits, she is not a “not an education policy wonk,” she’s “just judgmental.” As best as I can tell, she exhibits absolutely no credentials to support her claim about the moral status of those who send their children to private schools. By credentials I don’t mean that she needs to have a doctorate in education, but I do believe she lacks sufficient evidence to convince at least this reader that she is anything other than someone who is indeed judgmental, bearing a grudge of an admittedly “shoddy” education (her choice of word), and proffering a plan that she thinks might help the United States education system, which is by and large currently a mess. Benedikt can certainly be forgiven for that last point, we need as many ideas as necessary to resolve the current educational decline.

But are Catholic and other private schools the problem?

Some might recall that I’ve written in these pages before about the status of the United States education system (“Schools for Hire?”). This is a subject that is of significant interest to me and something about which I care a great deal. I come from a family of teachers (my mother has taught for years in both elementary and secondary schools; my younger brother has taught high-school and college-level math) and have many friends who teach at all levels. Additionally, I have taught at the college level, I have seen and experienced the effects of the elementary and secondary education systems on incoming freshmen (something warned about in this Washington Post piece from earlier this year), and I know that the challenges we face in addressing these problems are not simple nor are they singular. Yet, Benedikt seems to believe that the problem is (at least primarily) the selective absenteeism of parents who are concerned about their children’s education (i.e., those ‘bad people’ sending their kids to private school).

There is a great deal about Benedikt essay that strikes me as reasonable. For example, when she writes:

I believe in public education, but my district school really isn’t good! you might say. I understand. You want the best for your child, but your child doesn’t need it. If you can afford private school (even if affording means scrimping and saving, or taking out loans), chances are that your spawn will be perfectly fine at a crappy public school. She will have support at home (that’s you!) and all the advantages that go along with being a person whose family can pay for and cares about superior education—the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. She may not learn as much or be as challenged, but take a deep breath and live with that. Oh, but she’s gifted? Well, then, she’ll really be fine.

I think she is correct to point out that rarely is it the school or district per se that “makes or breaks” a child’s future. I, like Benedikt, have had both good and bad teachers (and I have only ever attended private Catholic schools!), but her point about family life and broader community support is, I feel, spot-on. Ultimately, parents, sibling, neighbors and friends who take a concerted interest in the education of children will have a greater impact on a child’s future than what she refers to as “crappy schools” or even good schools, for that matter.

However, Benedikt’s singular point is that private education siphons resources – financial and social, formal and implicit – from public education, thereby causing or at least contributing to the educational blight we witness today in the United States.

So what about her argument?

I’m not sure it stands. At least, it doesn’t stand alone. Educational researchers and journalists have long highlighted some of the systemic problems in the US education system over the last few decades. A new book by Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Go That Way, is a sobering look at the mediocrity of the American system in general. Ripley looks at the education systems of South Korea, Poland and Finland to illustrate what it is that other countries with broad and marked success are doing and what we, to be honest, are simply not doing.

What seems to be absent from Benedikt’s diatribe against parents who send their children to private schools is the admittance that many of the same problems that plague the public schools similarly affect the private. Ripley writes in her new book that, “American kids at private schools tended to perform better [on the international tests], but not any better than similarly privileged kids who went to public school. Private school did not, statistically speaking, add much value” (17). On one hand, Benedikt is right to say that private schools might not be worth it. Yet, on the other hand, the same systemic issues are affecting children in general in the U.S., without private-public discrimination.

Because Benedikt believes that sending one’s children to private school for religious reasons is not a “compelling reason,” there doesn’t seem to be much to convince her that it is anything other than the luxuriating of the middle-class and higher.

Oh, except, this moralizing journalist forgot about an intangible factor that eludes the state, federal and international tests: character.

I gave the commencement address at Notre Dame High School in Utica, NY this June at which time I unapologetically lambasted the current state of education – especially in New York with its increasing move toward standardized testing and the sad decline in emphasizing the liberal arts – and praised the only reason Catholic education is of value in an age when, as Ripley and others point out, the quality of content delivered is determined by politicians and business consultants. Character. The way in which young women and men are viewed and treated, the way teachers often sacrifice higher-paying public-school salaries to teach in Catholic schools, the way that religion and other matters of faith are freely discussed (all religions, by the way. Catholic schools are not “Catholic indoctrination camps,” but places, when at their best, where students of all faiths can be free to talk about their traditions without fear of First Amendment proscriptions) – all of these things combine to set a very different tone that has little or nothing to do with test scores and everything to do with what Benedikt herself admitted was key – support!

Are Catholic schools bad for education? No, and neither are the parents who send their children to them. What Benedikt also ignores is the fact that parents who send their children to private schools still have to pay local school taxes, and so are paying twice. They still have some stake in public education, but Benedikt is right to assert that we should care more and work harder. She is wrong, however, in suggesting that parents are de facto “bad” for sending kids to private schools.

Photo: Stock
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4 Responses to “Considering Catholic Schools at the Start of the Year”

  1. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324463604579043031360151914.html?KEYWORDS=Taranto+education

    This article from the James Taranto, at the Wall Street Journal has an interesting analysis of Benedikt’s logic.

  2. I attribute much success in the academic and spiritual aspects of my life to Catholic Education.

  3. Bill Taylor Says:

    Dan, Thanks so much for this article and your own analysis and experiences. I forwarded it to many friends and relatives. I hope many individuals take this opportunity to discuss all education both public and private and not just dismiss the negative comments out of hand. They do provide good “food for thought”. Bill

  4. MARY ANN BURKE Says:

    Our two daughters went to Catholic school through 8th grade (the closest High School was 30 miles away with no bus service!!) I know that they received a great academic start and were able to attend morning Mass every day. I feel that had a great beginning to their spiritual life.

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