‘Choice’ Charade: Religious School Leaders Want Your Money But Not Your Oversight

The Catholic bishops are very clear about one thing: They want your tax money for their schools with no strings attached.

Supporters of private school “choice” – by which they mean their right to choose to pass the bill for private religious education to the taxpayer – believe they are on a roll. To some extent, they’re right.

In March, Indiana’s Supreme Court ruled that the state’s voucher plan doesn’t violate a provision in the Indiana Constitution that bars tax aid to religion. In the wake of that ruling, legislators promptly approved an expansion of the program.

Several states are considering voucher programs and some are experimenting with so-called “neo-vouchers” – convoluted schemes whereby corporations donate money to non-profits that grant “scholarships” (vouchers) to students and then receive most of that money back in the form of a tax credit. (Americans United is challenging a plan like that in the New Hampshire courts.) Various other schemes to divert tax funds to religious schools have been proposed in other states.

“We’ve never had so much wind at our back,”  John Schoenig, director of the University of Notre Dame’s Program for Educational Access, told Catholic News Service recently.

A couple of things struck me about this story. Number one, Schoenig notes that there are “400,000 empty seats in Catholic schools nationwide and approximately 36 percent (of them) are in states that have a school-choice program.” He adds that a number of Catholic schools have had to close recently, and this has spurred some people to look for creative ways to keep them open.

So, just to be clear here: In some states that have choice plans, some Catholic schools still suffer from under-enrollment. Why is this so? Perhaps because even some Catholic parents don’t want to send their children to those schools. It seems that what the church wants here is not “choice” but a taxpayer-funded bailout of a school system that even many of its members no longer wish to patronize.

Why aren’t parents knocking down the doors of Catholic schools? Some may not want to expose their children to an education infused with dogma, and often, a hefty dose of right-wing politics on issues such as birth control, abortion and LGBT rights.

But more to the point, many parents are waking up to the fact that private school tuition is often a waste of money. As Time magazine noted a few years ago, a rigorous study by the Center on Education Policy concluded that socio-economic factors are more important than where a young person goes to school.

Center President Jack Jennings observed, “Contrary to popular belief, we can find no evidence that private schools actually increase student performance. Instead, it appears that private schools simply have higher percentages of students who would perform well in any environment based on their previous performance and background.”

Even with a voucher in hand, most families have to pay something to cover the costs of private institutions. With the cost of higher education skyrocketing, many parents would rather save those dollars and plow them into a college fund. 

Secondly, the Catholic News Service story is quite frank in noting how the Catholic hierarchy used euphemisms like “parental choice” and other warm and fuzzy terms to change the debate. Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Catholic Education, said that church leaders also framed the matter in terms of social justice.

Church officials almost never say the word “vouchers.” They know that concept does not poll well, and they are aware that every time Americans get the opportunity to vote directly on vouchers through a ballot initiative, they reject the idea. The bishops’ use of less-threatening terms is an important part of their strategy.

Finally, the bishops are very clear about one thing: They want your money with no strings attached. Sister John Mary told Catholic News Service that the bishops often lobby for vouchers but do so with “their eyes open” and are careful to make certain that legislation does not result in government “reaching into Catholic education.”

So, in the perfect world of the Catholic hierarchy, they get to saturate their schools with religion, they get to decide who teaches there, they get the “choice” about who gets in, they get to force all of us to prop up their flagging network of private schools – and they don’t have to worry about the bill.

It’s a sweet deal for them. Will it last? Maybe not. Education Week reported recently that the U.S. Justice Department has warned several private schools taking part in Milwaukee’s long-running voucher plan that they may not discriminate against students with disabilities. The department took action after advocates for the disabled noted that only 1.6 percent of voucher students have disabilities, while 20 percent of public school students are classified as having disabilities.

According to Education Week, the advocacy groups in Wisconsin charged that students with even minor disabilities were refused admission to voucher schools or, if they were admitted, were later expelled.

The Milwaukee voucher program is 22 years old, and this is the first serious attempt at regulation I’ve seen from federal officials. It’s a small step, but let’s hope it won’t be the last.

The fact that religious schools are getting our tax money to teach sectarian doctrines (and often controversial political views as well) is bad enough. That they’ve been able to do it without submitting to even the barest forms of oversight from the public that they demand pay their bills is nothing short of a disgrace.