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I write as a Catholic educated almost entirely in Catholic schools, and who has spent his career at Catholic universities. As someone who watched his parents struggle to pay tuition at Catholic schools, even as they paid taxes for public schools. As someone who did the same for my children.
I write both to celebrate the defeat of pro-voucher candidates in Jeffco in this month’s school board elections, and to dream of another kind of voucher system.
The Jeffco dispute embodies national right-wing efforts to destroy teachers’ unions and essentially privatize (and monetize) public education. (Did I mention that I’ve always belong to a teacher’s union?)
I know that Colorado’s Catholic bishops supported pro-voucher candidates in Jeffco. I’m happy they, too, lost because of late they’ve been mostly in bed with the cultural-political right (thereby ignoring most Catholic teachings on justice except in their advocacy for immigrants).
Yet I still want to join them and other religious folks in working for a voucher system that would acknowledge the full citizenship of all parents and the excellent education for civic life provided by many (perhaps most) religiously affiliated schools.
Catholic schools in this country began as a mid-19th Century effort by immigrants to protect their children from the anti-Catholic animus and Protestant ideology then rampant in public schools – somewhat akin to now much-deplored efforts to “Americanize” native peoples in reservation schools. Catholic schools flourished through mid-20th Century and continue today despite the declining numbers of nuns and priests who once made them economically viable. And they still (according to numerous studies by secular scholars) achieve top marks for the quality curricula and test scores. Witness the presence these days of Catholics in political office and business leadership – the tip of a far larger and continually demonstrated contribution of Catholic schools to civic life.
Development of some kind of tax-funded support for at least some religiously affiliated schools (Christian or Jewish or Muslim…) would end the double taxation forced upon parents who choose such schools. It could also become one aspect of the movement to diversify public education — as in DPS’ laudable development of different charter schools and its more general empowerment of parental choice.
I say “at least some religiously affiliated schools” because some religious schools clearly do not provide an adequate education for civic life and do indeed indoctrinate rather than educate with religious instruction. The Muslim madrassas we hear about these days comes to mind as examples, as do some supposedly “orthodox” Catholic and Christian schools, as well as some Jewish schools.
My criteria for religious school participation in any public support system are two. That the school (1) provide a fully liberal education (in the full original sense of that designation) which (2) in its religious instruction educates and does not indoctrinate. That is the basis for our present system in higher education where tax monies support most religiously affiliated colleges and universities, but not seminaries and other ministry training programs. It is also the basis for the acknowledged success of public support for religiously affiliated primary and secondary schools in Canada and much of Western Europe.
So why not here?
To those who righteously proclaim, “I’m not paying for religious indoctrination,” I add a further note. The mid-19th Century public schools in this country were, as I’ve said, centers for that typically American blend of Protestant and secular-progressive indoctrination. My sense of public education over the years is that such indoctrination tilted in the post-war years towards the secular-progressive, with only a residue of the Protestant. These days it has tilted further in secular/multi-cultural directions. Ideology and indoctrination, in other words, are inescapable in any form of education. That’s why the liberal dimension of such education is crucial. Interestingly, the present emphasis on multicultural tolerance actually makes public schools these days much better places for religiously-affiliated students and families.
It’s also why I so oppose the present right-wing voucher movement since it is essentially ideological (and “liberal” only in economic terms). It is anti-union, pro-profit, and designed so those with greater wealth can avoid rubbing shoulders with their poorer (and often different skin-colored) neighbors.
John F. Kane is emeritus professor of religious studies at Regis University (Denver). He blogs at “With a Cane.”