All Schools Are Public Schools: Private Schools, Public GoodJASON BOFFETTI
Are private alternatives adequate substitutes for public schools and should they receive public funding. With respect to both Catholic schools and home schooling it is clear good education doesn’t depend on big government budgets. Unfortunately, these private alternatives currently face both legal and financial threats. If they disappear, parents will have even fewer choices in education.
All Schools Are Public Schools
Parents know best
When the Children's Scholarship Fund made 40,000 partial tuition scholarships in 1999 to help low-income parents send their children to private schools, the fund had to turn away 1.2 million applicants. These parents aren't waiting for education reform. They're sending their children to schools that can deliver right away, because it's no secret that without basic math skills, functional literacy, or solid work habits, their children will not grow up to find a good job.
It's sad that these parents have to look so hard for good schools because the methods and benefits of such schools are no secret. Twenty years ago, the late Ronald Edmonds at Michigan State University released a study of high-performing/high-poverty schools that found that order and discipline are the keys to success.1 In what amounts to the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Schools," he outlined the proven methods: high expectations, a principal who teaches teachers, a singularly motivated staff, safe and orderly classrooms, aggressive teaching of skills, parental involvement, and frequent testing. Combine these traits with small classes and small schools and you have a near-universal model for an effective learning environment. Public schools rarely do these things, but private and religious schools often do.
Parents want more than just good grades, too; they think moral instruction is important. So many parents send their children to private religious schools at their own expense or educate their children at home. In fact, almost all parents believe that their children need such instruction. More than 90 percent of parents believe that schools ought to try to instill the virtues of honesty and moral courage, apply the Golden Rule, teach children to accept people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds, and promote democracy. And 68 percent of parents want schools to teach sexual abstinence.2
Unfortunately, American public education has become allergic to this kind of instruction. Teaching right from wrong and moral excellence has been replaced with teaching social acceptance and a kind of moral equivalency that says that no choice is better than another. Parents who want more serious moral instruction the kind that was once generally available even in public schools now have to find it elsewhere.
In this chapter, I will consider whether private alternatives are adequate substitutes for public schools and, therefore, whether they ought to receive public funding. To do so, I will look in-depth at two popular alternatives to public education Catholic schools and home schooling that show that good education doesn't depend on big government budgets. Unfortunately, these private alternatives currently face both legal and financial threats since America's education system has failed to accommodate parental choice in the form of vouchers and tax credits. If they disappear, parents will have even fewer choices in education. If we make these schools accessible to more students, however, parents of children in some of the worst schools will have a much brighter future.
Critics usually claim that private schools have nothing to teach public schools and that they certainly should not qualify for public funding. These critics have imbibed three common misconceptions about private schools: that they cater to the rich, they are essentially unregulated, and they do not serve the public good. Private schools, they say, have nothing in common with public schools and should not be compared to them. Is this true?
The first misconception: Who benefits?
The first misconception is easily dispelled because private schools actually serve parents with modest incomes. Roughly 10 percent (or about six million) of our nation's K-12 students attend private schools. Their parents can't all be wealthy because only 2 percent of the population makes over $100,000 per year.
When we think about alternatives to public schools, our minds conjure up images of elite and very expensive prep schools. But this is not the typical private school. Most private schools, in fact, are religious schools (87 percent of all private educational institutions), and 78 percent of them charge less than $3,500 per year according to the National Center for Education Statistics (1997-1998 school year).
Perhaps voters would find it a little easier to consider allocating public funding to private education if they knew that the support goes to modestly priced schools. For one thing, public funding of private education would allow more children of all backgrounds, not more rich children, to attend private schools. While nonsectarian schools cost on average a little over $6,000 per year, religious schools average about $2,500.3 Since religious schools tend to be more affordable, they would stand to benefit the most from education reforms such as vouchers and tax credits. A $1,500 voucher or scholarship puts a $3,000 tuition within reach of many parents. The experience of cities where public vouchers existed in 1999-2000 confirms this. Ninety-six percent of the participating schools in Cleveland and 92 percent in Milwaukee were religious, but the more expensive secular schools declined to accept voucher-bearing students.
Experience also shows that Catholic parochial, diocesan, and independent schools stand to gain the most from public funding. Like public schools, they take children when no one else will, and they represent as good a case study as we are likely to find to consider the effects of alternatives to our present system. Catholic schools are generally affordable and that makes Catholic education the most likely options for many parents. A mere 2 percent of Catholic elementary schools charge more than $3,500 per year, and almost half of Catholic high schools charge less than $3,000. No one argues that the government must agree to cover the entire cost of a private education. Perhaps what opponents of choice really mean is that they reject public funding of Catholic and other religious schools in any way.
The second misconception: Accountability
Many assume that private schools currently function without any accountability to the government and possibly in an irresponsible manner. But all private schools report to parent-teacher school boards, boards of directors, and, in the case of Catholic schools, to their parish or diocese. Critics of private schools fail to see that private schools are in many ways more responsive to parents and more open to direct parental participation. Meanwhile, public schools have become more hierarchical, and public participation has been limited by the need to comply with elaborate state and federal legislation.
Surely any public funding of private schools would involve greater public accountability, but it should be noted that private schools are already regulated by state governments. Private schools must adhere to "minimum standards" for teacher certification, workplace safety, and, in some states, mandatory additions to the curriculum. The Department of Education website offers a useful summary of the various laws and regulations that apply to private schools in every state.4 Some may find it surprising to learn that many states already have very explicit guidelines for regular testing and reporting for private schools.
There are limits to this regulation, however, because the Supreme Court has upheld the right of private school independence on the grounds that onerous regulation threatens parental rights to direct their children's education. The truth may be that public schools, too, could use this same protection from political predation, which often weakens their ability to function and to respond to parental and other community input aimed at improvement.
The third misconception: Defining "private"
The distinction between public and private schools is a false one since there is no such thing as a "private" student. Some schools may be privately run and others publicly run, but all schools serve the public. The clearest distinction between them is how they are funded, and that is exactly what the movement for school choice seeks to change.
Indeed, the very fact that we regulate private schools at all shows that we already believe that private schools serve a public function and must have some degree of public accountability. If we are willing to go that far, we should go further and admit that private education serves the common good and therefore deserves a fair share of our common education funds.
Furthermore, private education performs an often ignored public service. Every year, private schools save public education $40 billion. For every student who attends a private school, the government saves $6,915, the average public school cost per pupil. Those resources are redirected to benefit present public school students. Catholic schools alone save the American taxpayer $15 billion.
Private schools, then, already provide a very public service. To support more private schools with public funding would only be to acknowledge the existing role they play in American education. This is an issue of basic fairness. If over a million parents in America believe that their public schools are failing them, they should not be forbidden by their economic circumstances from finding schools that work. They ought to be able to send their children to alternative schools, ones that serve the public, that are close at hand, and, as I argue below, that are often much better than the ones their children are trapped in.
The Catholic case study
If we are going to consider public financing of private schools, it is only fair that we ask these two questions: Can private schools fulfill their promise of an education better than existing public options? And do they even need or want the money?
Since private education is so diverse, we cannot answer these questions for all nonpublic schools. Catholic schools present the best case study among private alternatives because they match up fairly well statistically to public schools; Protestant religious schools, Montessori schools, and Jewish day-schools have less easily comparable student bodies. But much of what makes Catholic schools successful may be said of these schools as well. Furthermore, Catholic schools far outnumber any other single private school alternative. Catholic schools account for 30 percent of all private schools but nearly half of all private school students; they employ 40 percent of private school teachers.
Because Catholic schools operate under circumstances very similar to those of public schools, they offer a counterexample to many of the excuses public schools use for failure. Catholics schools have comparable class sizes, have teachers with equivalent levels of education, and draw 25 percent minority students compared with 33 percent in public schools, and yet they consistently out-perform public schools. How is this possible?
Catholic schools get the job done in many ways besides academically.5 Despite admitting most applicants, Catholic high schools graduate 97 percent of their students, compared with just over 50 percent in public schools. And it's clearly not because academic standards are lower. In study after study, Catholic school students outperform their public school peers. The federal government uses a regular test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), to measure education performance across the country. Results from the 1996 NAEP show that fourth- and eighth-grade Catholic school students do better in math, science, reading, and social studies, and few fall behind in later years. Eighty-five percent of Catholic school students take the SAT compared with 33 percent in public schools.
But Catholic schools also receive much attention because of the results they also get in the inner city. For reasons I have already discussed, Catholic schools are often the only viable alternatives to failed public schools for inner-city parents. And inner-city dioceses make great financial sacrifices to keep these schools open, since they are often underfunded by their parishes. Dioceses often help parents financially, but most parents still pay about $1,000 per year for this lifeline, a sacrifice many deem well worth it.
Catholic schools achieve remarkable results. Minority students from low-income families score more than 150 points higher than their public and magnet school peers, according to a 1990 Rand Corporation study. The dropout rate among black Catholic school students is 5 percent, compared with 17 percent in public schools. Minority students who graduate from a Catholic high school are three times more likely to get a college diploma (25 percent compared with 8.5 percent of public school students). And it's not just that smarter parents send their smarter students to Catholic schools, an effect called pre-selection. Economists David Figlio and Joe Stone of the University of Oregon have shown that for all blacks and Hispanics, regardless of other factors especially for those living in urban areas attending a Catholic school has profoundly positive academic benefits.6
The positive benefits of alternatives to public education are most evident in Washington, D.C., whose public schools have the highest cost-per-pupil in the nation and one of the lowest graduation rates and student achievement levels, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. D.C. Catholic schools are fairly comparable to public schools: 51 percent of the students are non-Catholic, and 80 percent are black. And yet when education researcher Kirk Johnson compared math scores, he found that Catholic school fourth- and eighth-graders perform a whopping 72 percent better on average on math tests than their public school peers.7 Out of all the other factors he weighed higher income levels, two-parent families, the mother's education level attending a Catholic school made the greatest difference.
Catholic schools not only turn out better graduates, they also seem to help public schools do so. Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby discovered that when public schools are forced to compete with Catholic schools in parental choice programs, academic achievement rises in both.8
Public school defenders don't even like to consider comparisons with Catholic schools. When Catholic schools participate in voucher programs, researchers believe they skew achievement results. They believe that there is something special about being religious that helps Catholic schools outperform public schools. So when they measure academic performance, among other things, they are loathe to compare the numbers with public schools. In other words, Catholic schools by the mere fact of being Catholic are regarded as having a competitive advantage that makes comparison to public schools seem unfair.
Social scientists have been busy trying to explain these differences. Some attribute better test scores to the fact that Catholic schools have more selective enrollment. However, the acceptance rate at Catholic schools averages 88 percent. While wealthier suburban schools can be more choosy because they frequently have waiting lists, inner-city school officials in Milwaukee, New York City, and Washington, D.C., say that they struggle to fill every seat in order to stay financially solvent. Therefore, if "cherry-picking" occurs, it is not primarily happening in the inner city where they must operate near full capacity.
Creating "social capital"
One of the most remarkable top-to-bottom studies of Catholic education makes the case that Catholic school students fare much better because they create "social capital" that pays academic dividends. Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland have argued that academic success is a direct consequence of the sacrifices Catholic schools demand of parents time, energy, and finances.9 The Catholic tradition of religion and community among Catholics and non-Catholics builds intangible resources of support that positively effect student outcomes.
Public schools have something to learn from the success of Catholic schools, say these authors. By offering a single core curriculum to all students, placing a premium on community-shaping activities, maintaining decentralized and unbureaucratic decision-making, and promoting an inspirational faith agenda, Catholic schools bring the school community together for common purposes, which can only help promote success. No student is allowed to fall behind because every individual who has made a choice to be there is regarded as worthy of attention.
Although Catholic schools proudly point out their academic success, they have a more central mission. In addition to the academic and social benefits of Catholic education, the most important reason Catholic schools exist is to inculcate the moral and religious teachings of the Catholic faith. Success in this area would be very hard to judge, although we can measure some positive side effects. The Department of Education, for example, reports that Catholic schools have fewer problems with student discipline and school violence. Teachers in Catholic schools report greater job satisfaction than do public school teachers.
Catholic identity is somewhat intangible, and many argue about its exact components. One thing, however, is clear: Being Catholic makes a difference to the students, teachers, and parents, and they have a right to maintain their religious and social identity. Trying to force Catholic education to be anything but Catholic would do violence to the secret of its success.
Furthermore, the philosophy behind Catholic education is holistic; its religious curriculum cannot be separated from its secular coursework. Catholicism is present in everything from the crucifixes on the wall to the faithful Catholics drawn to teach there for considerably lower pay than they could get in public schools. Even though 13 percent of the students are non-Catholic and that number approaches 80 percent in some schools in the inner cities, such as Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee parents have chosen the schools because they teach discipline and the basic tenets of the Christian faith, which these parents believe are important to a good education. This is not religious coercion, but a conscious and conscientious embrace of religion.
Returning to the initial theme of this essay, the most important feature of Catholic education is that it demands active parental choice. Any parent who opts out of the public school system makes an act of personal will and often accepts financial sacrifice. This is one of the most salient aspects of Catholic education and other private alternatives. Parents may claim to choose to send their children to public school, but too often public school is more a default than a real choice. However, when parents take responsibility for the education of their children, they have made a decision to play a more active role. The consequence of this decision is nothing less than lifesaving in many instances.
James Traub, a writer for the New York Times, laments that what we have learned after decades of attempted school reform is that nothing short of a change in environment can save inner-city children.10 The destructive environment of home-life and the city streets dooms the reform project from the very beginning. Traub has missed the point of sociologists like James Coleman, however, who argue good schools actually can create "social capital" by encouraging parents to participate in the life of the school. All the other public school reforms that have been tried focus on reforming the schools themselves, but nothing can substitute for requiring more from the parent, and Catholic schools try to do that not perfectly, not in every case, but as a matter of religious principle, they require parents to be part of the solution.
Criticisms of Catholic education
No study of Catholic education's greatest strength would be complete without exploring what many consider its greatest weakness: If Catholic education receives any public assistance, it will have to quiet its critics on these points.
The greatest single social critique of private education in general, and Catholic schools in particular, is that they isolate their students from a diverse society and instill social and religious prejudices. In short, the critics say, private education does not turn out good Americans. Graduates of Catholic schools, they add, are not prepared for American citizenship because they have not participated in the shared experience of public school, which models our common civic life. Indeed, if building an intense and self-contained community is part of the recipe for success, how can we not expect some degree of insularity in Catholic schools? If this criticism is correct, then alternatives to public education cannot hope for public support, since their critics will rightly argue that they undermine the very political and social system that supports them. But this critique is false.
Racial diversity. Critics quickly point to what they perceive as a racial bias in private education. In the American South, white families fled to private schools to avoid racial integration. This is hardly true of Catholic education. Recent data has shown that private education and particularly inner-city Catholic education is more racially integrated than public education, despite the fact or some would argue because of it that private education was largely immune to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Private schools were not forced to integrate but appear to have done so anyway.
Although public schools in the aggregate educate a higher percentage of minority students, private schools are more evenly diverse; public schools are more likely to be virtually all-white or all-black without forced busing.11 In fact, "private school students are twice as likely to be in these well-integrated classrooms than public school students."12 Perhaps more importantly, students in private schools are more likely to associate with members of different ethnic groups.13 Opponents of vouchers argue that they will increase racial segregation, but schools that participated in the Milwaukee voucher program mostly Catholic schools turned out to be more diverse than the public schools.
Teaching citizenship. Opponents of school choice also argue that public schools "by their nature are better able both to educate many children and help them become good citizens."14 The facts don't support this assertion either. In the latest set of scores (1999) from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, not a single grade level tested (fourth, eighth, or twelfth) in public schools received a passing grade for "proficiency" of civic knowledge.
The situation is better in private schools. David Campbell of Harvard University shows that students in secular schools, Catholic schools, and other religious schools volunteer more for civic service, score higher on civic knowledge tests, and are even more politically tolerant than public school students. Catholic school students are the most civically involved, while secular private school students are the most tolerant.
Building on the seminal work of Robert Putnam and James Coleman on "social capital," Campbell speculates that Catholic schools create the "value community . . . of people who share a common belief system on at least one dimension" which builds trust and "leads to a virtuous circle of collective action."15 One can hardly think of a better foundation for public involvement. Private schools perhaps also tend toward patriotism in part because they feel they must compensate for their distinct nature.
Consider the part that Catholic schools have played for more than a century now integrating the children of new immigrants into the American fabric without suppressing their ethnicity. Catholic schools teach children the language and the social, cultural, and political ways of their new country within the familiar context of a common Catholic faith.
If anything, public schools seem to err on the side of multiculturalism, as though patriotism is nationalistic at best, jingoistic at worse. For example, some public schools have replaced the traditional Flag Day practice of honoring the Stars and Stripes with hanging flags representing the ancestry of each student. The temptation to heighten difference may well convince students that they have nothing in common except diversity an obvious recipe for exacerbating existing racial, ethnic, and religious tensions. Parents who send their children to private school may actually be seeking a place where it is safe to be a patriotic American in a society that has come to favor, at most, a public ambivalence about such displays of national pride.
Catholic education is in every important respect a part of the American social fabric and should be treated as a vital national resource. Catholic education can claim alumni in the highest courts in the land and in the most modest occupations. Not only does it provide an education for its own religious flock, it has proved itself a life preserver for thousands of inner-city children drowning in failed public institutions.
Catholic schools in crisis?
Despite its benefits, the future of Catholic education is uncertain. It has been increasingly difficult to keep up with the rising costs of education and compete with the almost unlimited resources public schools command.
Since the 1970s, Catholic schools have been in crisis mode due to a persistent funding shortfall and declining enrollment. President Nixon even commissioned a national study of Catholic education to determine how it could be fixed, arguing that Catholic education was important to the national interest. Three decades later, finances remain very tight even as dioceses have been forced to close or consolidate schools for lack of funds. And competition with public-sector initiatives such as charter schools and interdistrict choice has increased in the past decade, making the problem worse.
Although religious education still accounts for 85 percent of all private schools, in terms of absolute numbers, Catholic education in America has been in decline over the past several decades. There has been little decline in private, religious education as a whole because the Catholic contraction has been cancelled out by the growth of Evangelical Christian schools. In 1970, Catholic schools accounted for 70 percent of private schools. Now they are just one-third although about half of private school students are in Catholic schools. More telling, however, is the decline in Catholic participation in parochial education. In 1961, 54 percent of Catholic children attended parochial school for some or all of their education. Now the figure is just 20 percent.
Fifty years ago, Catholic education could compete with public education because it was free, or nearly so. But that was at a time when teaching salaries and benefits were minimal because nearly all teachers were from religious orders. In 1920, only 8 percent of teachers were lay, and in 1960, just 26 percent were. Today, however, 93 percent of Catholic school teachers are lay, and they require larger salaries to support their families. Unless the Catholic Church sees a huge and unexpected increase in religious vocations particularly among women, who once staffed a majority of Catholic school classrooms it is likely that Catholic schools will have to raise tuition to close the yawning gap between Catholic and public school teachers' salaries.
Rreasons for the crisis
There are many explanations for decline in enrollment, but perhaps two are most salient. Many Catholic parents may not see the importance of a Catholic education, particularly when it comes with a high price tag. For example, in 1997, the Archdiocese of Chicago commissioned a study of its school system to determine how to boost enrollment. (The Chicago Archdiocese ran a $20 million school deficit in 1999 that was not covered by tuition and fund-raising.) But the late, Joseph Cardinal Bernadin was committed to keeping as many schools open as he could, even schools that were "in the red."
The study showed that struggling schools, at the very least, needed to fill every available seat with tuition-paying students. Surprisingly, many inner-city parents, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike, did not know that Catholic education would only cost them $1,000 a year, with the diocese picking up the rest of the tab. When they learned the facts, many said they would eagerly pay to get their children out of the awful and dangerous public schools they were in. Suburban parents were more sanguine. Parents who believed in the importance of Catholic education already sent their children to Catholic schools. The rest of the parents did not think it would be worth the added expense because they felt that their suburban public school system was at least equal to, if not better than, the Catholic schools in terms of academics and amenities. In other words, the "Catholic" in Catholic education was not worth an extra $1,000 per year to them.
On the other hand, some Catholic parents cannot send their children to Catholic schools because there are none available. Dioceses have also failed to build schools as fast as populations have shifted from the city to the suburbs and from the Northeast to the South and West. The Catholic Church is not alone in this; public education is racing to build schools in places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles where the districts builds as many as one school every six weeks!
Public school districts have no choice but to keep up, but dioceses can wait. As a result, in many places the demand exceeds the will and the money to build. Despite enormous public support, my own home diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, for example, has declined to take on the debt to build a diocesan high school on Cape Cod where there are already six new elementary schools with waiting lists, and despite a pledge of $1 million from the parents.
Yet, there is reason to believe that decline in enrollment does not have to continue. The National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) reports that the situation has improved slightly. Enrollment has increased by 64,000 over the past decade. In 1999-2000, there was a net gain of 4,600 students for a current enrollment of 2,653,038 despite a net loss of thirty-six schools. Another reassuring trend is the number of parents who want their children to attend Catholic schools but can't find an empty seat for them. Forty-three percent of Catholic schools have waiting lists. Increases in the West, Southwest, and Plains states largely reflect trends in population migration.16 As dioceses respond to these migration trends, new schools may accommodate an eager pool of students.
But Catholic education will likely continue to struggle because public education provides a free and generally decent education for most American parents. Catholic education costs money. One can hardly blame parents in such circumstances for feeling that it's unfair to pay twice for a child's education. Like it or not, local property taxes are extracted for local schools and a seat is available for the student, whether or not that student chooses to use it. A fair system would allow parents a choice. Public funding for private schools would make all alternative schools more viable and empower parents to be involved in the education of their children. But even if the courts and the legislatures decided that the government could, in fact, fund private and religious education out of public tax dollars, the question becomes, should the schools take the money?
Do they want public money?
Faced with a financial crisis in the inner cities, Catholic education may have no other choice than to take government money if it were available. But if these schools accept government money, some believe the schools will be forced to behave more like public schools, their religious identity wilting under the threat of litigation and pressure to follow government standards.
Others believe that the threat to Catholic education is worth the risk, if the alternative is seeing children lose their last chance to get a good education. Brother Bob Smith, president of Messmer High School in Milwaukee, which receives public vouchers, believes that Catholics have a moral duty to find ways to keep their schools afloat in the inner city. Furthermore, Catholic schools would reject public funding if government regulation became too burdensome. Can Catholic schools receive government money and remain Catholic in more than name?
To answer this question, we would need a crystal ball. Someone will have to make a top-to-bottom review of how existing government aid programs have affected the content of Catholic schools. Have threats of lawsuits or fear over compliance eroded part of Catholic education's unique identity? What kinds of books are purchased with government money? Are they more secular than before? How many schools let students opt out of religion class for fear of lawsuits? Does the content of health and sex-education classes accord with the Church's teaching, or is it a tamer version of government programs? Do remedial or handicapped students receive a less holistic education because they receive instruction from non-Catholic teachers?
In the meantime, we know that Catholic schools do take government money and are better equipped than any other group of private schools to "interface" (for lack of a better word) with government bureaucracies. Catholic education has numerous public policy organizations NCEA, sub-agencies of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), and the Education Department of every diocese and archdiocese in the country that make sure Catholic schools are adequately and uniquely spoken for at every level of government: local, state, and federal.
These agencies believe that Catholic schools can navigate the shoals of government regulation and public accountability while keeping their distinct Catholic identity. Both the NCEA and the USCC have encouraged schools to assert their right to apply for federal money in the wake of the Agostini ruling (1997), which has considerably opened up federal money for parochial schools. In 1998, the USCC published "Making Federal Dollars Work," which outlines the various kinds of federal aid Catholic schools might qualify for and describes administrative models that dioceses might adopt to best apply for and manage the new aid. The report encourages administrators to seek every dollar that the federal government makes available in Titles I through IV, and Title VI programs, and notes the shortfall in proportionate funding that Catholic schools have failed to claim.
Accepting federal aid for such things as remedial education, teacher training, books, and computers makes sense, especially considering that the dioceses that most often qualify for the aid are those with the greatest financial need and the greatest concentration of children who need the help. As a former chairman of the USCC's Committee on Education wrote: "It is particularly difficult, with limited church resources, to provide the most current teacher training, the most advanced equipment, and the newest developments in educational programs without access to the federal programs which can help us attain this goal."17
And these bodies have been school choice's strongest advocates. The USCC stands behind the right of all parents "to choose the education they believe is best suited for their child, whether that is a public, private or religious school." They know that not all choice programs are alike. Catholic school advocates recognize the ever-present danger of unintended consequences and the proverbial strings attached to federal dollars. Catholic schools could be forced to adopt civil rights laws that might make it impossible to prefer Catholic teachers. They could be asked to push all religious teaching to the end or beginning of the school day, or after hours, so that students could "opt out." Choice programs might encourage or require teachers to unionize. They might force schools to offer health care that would include abortion procedures. Any number of measures could make a choice program unacceptable to Catholic schools and their defenders.
According to Church teaching, public funding of Catholic schools may be acceptable, even justly necessary, with certain proscriptions. The teachings on education laid out in the Second Vatican Council document Gravissimum Educationis ("Declaration on Christian Education") speak powerfully. Parents have a "solemn obligation to educate their offspring." Nothing can substitute for the family, which is the "first school of those virtues which every society needs."18
But the state has its obligation, too. Public education may not be run as a monopoly, but it has an obligation to provide for school choice and "see to it, out of concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are allocated, in such a way that, when selecting schools for their children, parents are genuinely free to follow their consciences."19 The state should also accommodate the religious instruction of Catholic children who attend public school.20 Just as the Catholic school contributes to the common secular good, the secular authority, in recognizing religious freedom and pluralism, must assist Catholic schools in promoting their sacred mission.
If the government decided tomorrow to take up its responsibility to help Catholic schools with its unique social service, there is nothing to stop Catholic education from accepting this help, provided it does not come with the strings that would hamper its success. In the meantime, Catholic schools will continue to offer an excellent education to children who would otherwise to forced to attend failing public schools.
As Catholic education wrestles with the possibility that government funding may corrupt its religious mission, some parents reject the idea that there is any necessary public role in providing education. Home-schooling families believe that often parents themselves can provide the best education for their children, and all the statistics prove them right.
During the 1999-2000 school year, 1.7 million children (or roughly 3 percent of the school-age population) received their education at home. And they aren't a quiet minority. Eleven percent of the 2000 national spelling bee's contestants were home schooled, including its top three finishers. The winner had already placed second in the National Geography Bee the week before. When stumped on a particularly tough word, "emmetropia," he claimed divine help: "I thought of God and it just popped into my head."21
Not only do home schoolers excel at spelling, but they exceed the national average on the ACT assessment test in 2000 by almost two full points on a test scaled from one to thirty-six. They also go on to great success in college. A 1998-1999 study by the National Center for Home Education reports that home-schooled students were more likely than public or private Christian school graduates to hold positions of campus leadership in college.22 For the past fifteen years, home schooling has been one of the fastest-growing alternatives to public school; the number of home schoolers has increased some 15 to 20 percent every year since 1985. The renaissance of home schooling revives a proud American tradition. For the past several decades, public suspicion of home schooling has declined, according to joint polling by Phi Delta Kappan and Gallup. In 1985, 73 percent of those polled thought it was a bad thing; in 1997, Americans appeared to be changing their minds: 57 percent disapproved of it.23
America has a tradition of home schooling that is unique among modern nations. While Europe was building nation-states and expanding its urban cities, Americans were moving further west, conquering a continent, and bringing western culture with them in trunks on wagons and on horse-back. Among other lifesaving supplies were the ubiquitous McGuffey readers that taught generations of ambitious colonists the basics of an education. Many American presidents in the eighteenth century received at least some of their education in the home, most notably Abraham Lincoln who had received no formal education at all.
Three centuries of American pioneers educated their children in the home until they could build towns large enough to support a parson or schoolmaster. The bookish ones were sent back to the cities for a more extensive education, perhaps to return as a country doctor or lawyer, further contributing to the taming of the West. The rest learned enough to read and do arithmetic so that they could order seed and calico and manage a farm budget.
The recent resurgence in the home-schooling movement has become an international phenomenon but not without resistance. Parents throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, have begun home schooling though it remains prohibited. Even here in the United States, home schooling was not legal in all fifty states until 1993. Indeed, in 1980 it was illegal in thirty states.24 Fortunately, this tradition that served parents and their children so well during the settling of our nation benefits today from protection by law.
Claiming the right to home school
Home schooling highlights several problems with mandatory public education. We all believe in universal literacy, but getting there is tricky, because parents bear primary responsibility for their children. The U.S. Constitution does not allow the federal government to oversee education, nor does it establish education as a right. State constitutions are more explicit, however, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, many states had adopted compulsory attendance laws and mandated the creation of public schools to see that education was available for every child.
Although all states require that parents provide some level of education for their children, Oregon went much further in the 1920s insisting that all parents with some minor exceptions send their children to public schools. The legislation tried to force parents who sent their children to parochial schools into public schools where they could receive a "proper" Protestant education. The Supreme Court stepped in to protect the rights of parents under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justice James McReynolds put the matter firmly in the 1925 case Pierce v. Society of Sisters: "The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations." In this landmark case, the Court recognized the fundamental right of parents to determine their children's education. The case continues to serve as the basis for the right to attend a private school and to home school to this day.
While the state may have a vested interest in the education of its citizens, home-schooling families prove that state sponsorship is not necessary for excellence. Lawrence Rudner of the University of Maryland released the most comprehensive survey of 20,000 home schoolers in the spring of 1999. The results from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills confirmed several other previous studies of home schoolers, demonstrating that home schooling is no bar to high achievement. In fact, the students tested performed exceptionally well. The median score for every grade was typically in the 70th to 80th percentile. Students performed, on average, from first- to fourth-grade levels above their peers. SAT scores among lifetime home schoolers were significantly higher than all other students, public or private.25 Boys did as well as girls. Although annual family incomes did account for some differences on the standardized tests, home schoolers from families that made less than $35,000 per year still averaged in the 70th percentile. Having a parent with teacher certification did not increase performance, and although parent education level did, children of less-educated parents did much better on the tests than their counterparts in public schools.26
Several studies of the emotional and social development of home schoolers demonstrate that, rather than being maladjusted as is often the accusation they have higher self-esteem and a greater sense of independence and are just as involved with extracurricular activities as their peers.27 Judging by the anecdotal evidence, home schoolers do not lack for social contacts. Concentric circles of support groups; local, state, and federal associations; and activities such as national debate contests provide a network of social capital to bank on. Home school families often coordinate with private religious schools for athletics and specialty classes in the higher grades.
While none of this proves that home schooling is superior to every other method of education, it does prove that there is no reason to be suspicious. Considering that the average per-pupil cost in public schools was $6,915 in 1998-1999, home schooling has done public education a service by saving up to $12 billion for public schools. Parents who educate at home do so for just over $500 per year.
Despite recent legislative and judicial successes, home-schooling families frequently operate under the skeptical gaze of state and local governing bodies. The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), headed by attorney Michael Farris, was instrumental in helping "legalize" home schooling in every state over the last fifteen years. Today, HSLDA provides legal service to home-schooling families, helping them to comply with existing law and defending them in state and federal courts and legislatures.
Requirements for home-schooling families range widely from state to state. Most states require parents who home school to send their local school superintendent a letter of intent. A few states require that parents be teacher-certified, but many more require that a parent have at least a high school or college diploma or submit themselves or their children to regular standardized testing. Certification to teach only becomes a major issue for parents who hire a tutor or pool with other families to run home-schooling groups. Many states require that parents teach a basic set of subjects, which often includes courses on citizenship and American government. Since about half of those states don't require record-keeping or reporting, however, these requirements amount to little more than suggestions. In principle, though, the states have the authority to regulate home schooling.
Given the regulations and threats of lawsuits and the time and money involved, one may ask why parents bother at all. Parents choose to home school for various reasons. Some do it for religious reasons, because they want to instill values they believe are missing from public education. Evangelical Christians constitute the largest group of home-schooling families; there are also associations for Jewish and Muslim parents.28 But religious reasons aren't the whole story. When Florida tracked home-schooling attitudes over ten years, it found that until 1994, the majority of parents home schooled for religious reasons. But by 1995, 43 percent cited dissatisfaction with the public school environment as their chief reason; fewer cited dissatisfaction with public instruction.
Some just believe they can do a better job than failing or merely adequate local public schools. In a new development, home schooling has become popular among American military families who do not want their child's learning to be disrupted by frequent moves or transfers into lackluster school districts. At Andrew's Air Force Base, just a stone's throw from the U.S. Capitol, 10 percent of families home-educate and have started their own support groups.29 Home schooling in military families allows parents the flexibility to work around the erratic schedule of one parent. When Dad or Mom returns on leave, work can wait while the family gets some time together.
Those who argue that parents aren't qualified to teach their children should note that home-schooling parents are disproportionately better educated than the population as a whole: 88 percent of parents who home school have been educated beyond high school, versus 50 percent of the general population. One-quarter of home-schooling parents are certified teachers, though no state requires it except when they serve as professional tutors.30
Home-schooling families received a scare a several years ago when the omnibus education bill of 1994, H.R. 6, lumbered through Congress with new language that would have endangered home schools. The bill stated that local districts were responsible for ensuring that every teacher under their jurisdiction be certified. Since many local school districts believe that home-schooling parents are technically under their jurisdiction, this bill would have struck down every state law exempting home schooling parents from certification requirements. Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) introduced an amendment to the bill to accommodate home-schooling families. After thousands of faxes and millions of calls (probably from home schoolers and their children taking a break from class), the amendment achieved a stunning victory, stunning at least those who underestimated the home-schooling movement.
But this incident stresses an important point: The public education establishment believes that home schooling only exists by their permission and at the discretion of the local school district. At any time, the current arrangement may be changed. While legislators may not force children into public schools, they may restrict and regulate nonpublic options to make those options less appealing and more difficult. In fact, former President Clinton publicly stated that there ought to be public, even federal regulation of home schooling to ensure that children really are learning. He argued against all available evidence that home schooling might constitute parental neglect and that this would be enough to merit greater state control.
For now, the public education establishment tolerates home schooling because it poses no serious threat. Should home schooling approach 6 or 10 percent of the student population, however, one might expect its opponents may seek to regulate it out of existence. What can we learn from the experience of home schooling in America? Syndicated columnist Clarence Page put it best: "Parents matter. You don't need to have a doctorate in education to instill in children an eagerness to learn. The best educational support systems begin at home." Perhaps home schooling shows nothing more than that direct instruction is the best form of education. But home schooling also proves another important point: Good basic instruction outperforms supposedly sophisticated, professionalized schemes.
As long as parents are willing to sacrifice to educate at home through a parent or a tutor, home schooling provides an alternative to public schools that challenges the notion that education is all about money and professional teachers. In the meantime, we might ask, is it fair that an education that serves the child and the public so well be considered anything other than a "public" education? One way to affirm homeschooling would be to allow parents to deduct expenses related to educating their children from their taxes. We will consider such options further in the following chapter. But at the very least, homeschooling ought to be acknowledged and defended as in no way undermining the standards of excellence in education to which all parents aspire.
In nearly every way that matters, home schooling and Catholic schools compare favorably to public schools and teach public schools an important lesson. Not only do Catholic schools and home schools provide a better education at a lower cost, some of their greater success can be attributed to the social capital they build.
We cannot expect public schools to do exactly what these schools do, but they serve to remind public schools that resources cannot be the sole explanation for success or failure. Catholic schools integrate parents into the religious mission of the school and build a community that jump-starts learning. Nobody falls behind because everybody matters. Home schools build on familial love and sacrifice, which seem to matter more than professional accreditation or lavish resources.
Catholic schools and home schools generate enormous social capital that benefits us all. If we lost these valuable social assets, all Americans would be the poorer for it, but it would seem that these excellent educational alternatives cannot long endure if our present system remains hostile or refuses to grant some portion of public funds to the parents who use them.
Education costs have been rising faster than inflation. Many parents want, but cannot afford, these private alternatives. Frequently, home-schooling families make an enormous sacrifice by living on one income, and many inner-city families pay as much as one-fifth of their earnings to see that their children get the kind of education that will help them get a good job.
Forcing parents into failing public schools when there are good alternatives available does not fit with the American ideal of "liberty and justice for all." If we truly believe that every American is entitled to a good education, we should allow parents to send children to any good school regardless of whether it meets in a church basement, a diocesan campus, or a living room. And we shouldn't condemn them to poverty for exercising their right to that choice. Therefore, we should look for ways to relieve some of the financial burden in exercising this choice, which is the subject of the final chapter.
Jason Boffetti "All Schools Are Public Schools Ch. 2 - Private Schools, Public Good" Faith and Reason Institute (2001).
Reprinted with permission of the Faith and Reason Institute.
Jason Boffetti is the Programs Co-ordinator and Research Associate in Education for the Faith and Reason Institute.
Copies of the monograph All Schools Are Public Schools are available from the Faith & Reason Institute for $3.
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© 2001 Faith and Reason Institute
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.