The Roman Catholic Church has been much in the news lately, with the passing of Pope John Paul II and the appointment of his successor, Benedict XVI. Rightly so. John Paul II’s part in hastening the liberation of Poland from totalitarian communism was, by itself, a remarkable contribution to human freedom.
But as the world reflects on this transition within the church, the people of Michigan should not lose sight of another major shift taking place closer to home: the closing of many Catholic schools in and around Detroit.
When state-run public schooling was first championed in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, it was under the banner of “the common school,” and it was touted more for its predicted social benefits than its impact on mathematical or literary skills. The leading common school reformer of the time, Horace Mann, promised, “Let the Common School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”
Having experienced more than a century-and-a-half of a vigorously expanding public school system, Americans are no longer quite as sanguine about the institution’s capabilities. Nevertheless, there is still a widespread belief that government schools promote the common good in a way independent private schools never could.
Is that belief justified? Scores of researchers have compared the social characteristics and effects of public and private schooling. They have found little evidence of any public-sector advantage. On the contrary, private schools almost always demonstrate comparable or superior contributions to political tolerance, civic knowledge and civic engagement. One group of private schools stands out as particularly effective in this regard: those run by the Catholic Church.
The late great sociologist James Coleman repeatedly found that when he compared Catholic schools to their public-sector counterparts, they were more effective in educating low-income and minority students, engendered greater parental participation, and sent far more of their graduates to college — all after controlling for differences in the characteristics of public and private school families.
Coleman’s findings were echoed by the team of Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee and Peter Holland in their 1993 book, “Catholic Schools and the Common Good.” Lee (a professor of education at the University of Michigan) and her colleagues concluded that Catholic schools outshine public schools in raising student achievement, diminishing racial and economic achievement gaps, sustaining teacher commitment and promoting student engagement. More broadly, they noted, “Although the common school ideal inspired the formation of American public education for over one hundred years, it is now the Catholic school that focuses our attention on fostering human cooperation in the pursuit of the common good.” More recent studies and journalistic investigations have further corroborated the Catholic school advantage, particularly for disadvantaged students.
Given Catholic schools’ superior social and academic effects, it would seem sensible to structure education policy so as to make Catholic schooling more readily available — especially to the low-income and minority families whose children benefit disproportionately from the schools’ services. We have done the opposite. Though parental-choice programs like education vouchers and universal education tax credits can bring Catholic schooling within reach of any family who seeks it, we have elected to make only a half-hearted nod in the direction of parental choice: charter schooling.
With zero tuition and the promise of a somewhat better public education, charter schools appear to have eroded Catholic school enrollment. After years of rising charter school enrollment in the Detroit area, 18 metropolitan Detroit Catholic schools will reportedly close within the month. The principal of Detroit St. Martin DePorres High School told The Detroit News: “The biggest culprit is the economy. … [A]nd charter schools are also a detriment because they take away students from us.”
Ultimately, the benefits of charter schools pale in comparison to those of Catholic schools. Faced with that reality, we have to ask: When did our commitment to the common good become acquiescence to the common good-enough?
Catholic schools play a liberating role for tens of thousands of underprivileged American children, just as Pope John Paul II played a liberating role for millions of victims of communist tyranny. Under a more complete parental-choice program, they could be helping a lot more children. That, at any rate, is one non-Catholic’s opinion.
Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.