Give Poor Parents A Choice on Schools

During oral arguments in the

Cleveland school-voucher case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia tried to

make a rhetorical point by asking a question of the plaintiffs’ counsel. What,

the Justice said, should the state of Ohio do about its education crisis in

Cleveland, where poor, mostly minority parents are using vouchers to escape the

city’s failed public schools? “How should Ohio get from here to there?” he

asked. “Abolish all the inner-city religious schools and start from scratch?”

Ohio may not need to take such a drastic step. Inner-city

religious schools, in Cleveland and elsewhere, may be on their way to

extinction anyway, leaving millions of parents and children with no

alternative-unlike, say, the thousands of Upper East Side parents who wouldn’t

dream of sending their children to P.S. Such and Such.

The phrase used in the Supreme

Court arguments-“inner-city religious schools”-can mean everything from a

yeshiva in Williamsburg to the small Lutheran schools on the north shore of

Staten Island. In fact, however, the inclusive phrase cannot hide what is in

plain sight: Most of the schools in question are owned and operated by the

Roman Catholic Church. In the Cleveland case, 99.4 percent of the 4,456

students who participate in the voucher program go to religious schools; 75

percent of that number attend Catholic schools. That’s not because the students

are Catholic; it’s because the Catholic Church has the facilities and accepts

non-Catholic students.

In a different sort of culture, the Catholic Church’s work with

poor, non-Catholic inner-city students might be regarded as an extraordinary

example of ecumenism and selflessness, worthy of celebration and support. Its

commitment to the old Catholic neighborhoods of New York, Boston, Chicago and

Philadelphia might be considered an example of progressive social outreach.

Instead, the keepers of the culture continue to portray Catholic school

education as something out of Dante, presided over by sadists.

If only they understood just how vital these institutions are in

some of urban American’s less fashionable neighborhoods. Even as the debate

proceeded in the Supreme Court chambers on Feb. 19, New York parents and

children by the hundreds-perhaps even by the thousands-were awaiting the

outcome of another debate, this one closer to home and conducted in private,

and in sadness. It’s hardly a secret that the New York Archdiocese, educator of

some 111,000 children in three boroughs (Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten

Island) and several upstate counties, may announce more school closings within

a few weeks. The timing, of course, is terrible; the end of the school year

will be in sight when the expected announcement comes, meaning parents and

children may have to scramble to find another school for September.

Last year, the archdiocese announced six school closings, but

private benefactors came to the rescue of three. Most people in and around the

archdiocese believe that the next round of closings could be much worse, and

there will be very little chance of last-minute reprieves.

New York thus far has been spared the carnage of other cities,

but that happy circumstance can’t last much longer. Cardinal Edward Egan is

trying to close a budget gap estimated at $20 million, which means that nearly

every expense is open to scrutiny. Cardinal Egan’s two predecessors, Cardinal

John O’Connor and Cardinal Terence Cooke, refused to abandon the old

neighborhoods and their parish schools as white ethnic Catholics left the outer

boroughs for the suburbs. Cardinal Egan finds himself confronted with the

financial reality of those admirable, but perhaps unrealistic, decisions.

The question for those who

appreciate how important Catholic schools are to the city’s poor and poorly

served is whether New York will see the kind of mass closings underway in

Chicago. Fourteen elementary schools in that city will shut their doors in

June. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s archdiocese is closing schools whose

enrollments were in the thousands 25 years ago, but now educate a couple of

hundred. The National Catholic Educational Association reports that 61 Catholic

schools nationwide were closed or consolidated last year. Many provided a

now-vanished alternative to a failing public school in an inner-city

neighborhood.

President Bush, a supporter of vouchers, included in his 2003

budget a tuition tax credit of up to $2,500 for parents whose children attend

non-public schools. One opponent of the plan, the Reverend Barry Lynn, director

of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, described the Bush

budget

proposal as a “back-door voucher scheme” designed to “finance religious and

other private schools.”

No, it’s a plan to give struggling parents the same choices

available to parents who send their kids to Dalton and the like rather than use

the Upper East Side’s public schools.

Besides, as Justice Scalia no

doubt knows but some of his colleagues and many others don’t, Catholic schools

are among the most diverse, multicultural institutions in America’s cities. We

like that, don’t we?

Give Poor Parents A Choice on Schools