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Are Vouchers Good for Catholic Education?


On May 19, 2000, the Faith & Reason Institute sponsored a debate and discussion in the U.S. Capitol Building on the potential benefits and dangers of government vouchers for Catholic schools. The presenters were House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Father William F. Davis of the U.S. Catholic Conference, Michael Hartmann of Milwaukees Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Brother Bob Smith of Messmer High School, and Douglas Dewey of the Childrens Scholarship Fund. A slightly edited version of their remarks appears below.


On May 19, 2000, the Faith & Reason Institute sponsored a debate and discussion in the U.S. Capitol Building on the potential benefits and dangers of government vouchers for Catholic schools. The presenters were House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Father William F. Davis of the U.S. Catholic Conference, Michael Hartmann of Milwaukee's Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Brother Bob Smith of Messmer High School, and Douglas Dewey of the Children's Scholarship Fund. A slightly edited version of their remarks appears below. This event is one of a series in the Institute's program on Catholicism and the American Public Square, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts.


This morning, I started my day by visiting the Cornerstone School here in Washington, D.C. Every child is there because somebody partnered with a parent, agreeing to provide the finances to make it possible for them to attend a better school than the one they were in. Three years ago the school didn't exist, but a group of young congressional staffers were inspired by Catholic schools in this city. The existing rich tradition of Catholic schools served as a model for these staffers. They started a new school and called it Cornerstone. By providing these children with stability, love, somebody to care, somebody to discipline, somebody to encourage, Catholic schools are a shining example to us all.

Unhappily, Washington is a dangerous place for children. Every day we pick up the paper and read stories about a child who's lost, hurt, or gone astray. And when I looked at all those beautiful children at Cornerstone, I realized that every one of these children comes from a troubled background.

One little 9-year-old boy I met several years ago (we'll call him "Johnny") never saw his dad except when he came home to abuse the youngster. "Johnny's" mom used crack so heavily that he was getting up and going out to school every morning by himself. School was his one refuge. I'm proud to tell you that little "Johnny" has graduated from middle school and has just been admitted to one of the finer high schools in D.C. Through a good school, "Johnny" has managed to find a kind of salvation.

A few families have found an educational refuge for their children, as this student did, and throughout my life I have seen the difference Catholic education has made in the lives of friends and their families. My friend, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has told me stories about how the nuns kept him on the straight and narrow when he was a student in Catholic schools. Discipline and love are traditions in Catholic schools that we ought to recapture in American education.

I don't know why discipline and love do not come to these children naturally in school or sometimes in their families, but they exist in Catholic schools, which have been there providing them for children for a long, long time. We need them to continue that mission in the future.

I want to thank Catholic schools for what they have meant in the lives of children. What they do touches me. We congressmen don't get many chances to do anything quite that important in this town. We all bluster and we strut, and we all think of what big shots we are, working with billions of dollars and so forth. But give me a chance to have another $3,000 to put into the hands of another desperate mother for tuition, and I will feel that my week has been far more complete than a week in which we cut a few million dollars from another spending bill.

I first became interested in school vouchers - or as I prefer to say today, school scholarships - through the writing of Milton Friedman, one of the earliest proponents of vouchers. I happen to be known in my discipline of economics as a "Friedmaniac," because I've been an ardent follower of his thinking. From the very beginning, I liked the idea of vouchers . . . in theory. As an economist, I always want to see what works in practice and then find out if it can work in theory.

With vouchers, I got lucky, because I've seen these scholarships in practice and the difference they make for low-income, disadvantaged children. Often, these children are in the most desperate family situations. Sometimes, their dad has walked-out, or when he does come home, he's abusive. Often, the mom struggles against her own demons. And when a child is given a chance to attend a wonderful Catholic school, that child gets a second chance.

Painfully often, and especially in the case of male children, a good school may be their only chance at a decent future. And so I've been personally involved with another program called "Tools for Tomorrow." Like the Cornerstone school, we promise parents that we will give them scholarship money, but with "Tools", they may use it to attend any school they wish. We will also find a mentor for their child, and we have been very fortunate to find many young people willing to mentor; some are in this room today. Nothing is more rewarding than being able to tell a mother: "Here are the resources. Go find the school that serves the needs of your child." No parent should ever have to say to any child, "Honey, you have to go back to that failing, dangerous public school." Scholarships ensure that doesn't happen.

We take much joy in helping families with children in desperate situations. Some of these children will go on to positions of great prominence and esteem. But some will go on to more ordinary lives. Maybe our little "Johnny" was saved from being shot dead on the street or running drugs for his father. And maybe after years of education, teaching, love, support, encouragement, little "Johnny" doesn't do anything famous, he does nothing remarkable to get his name in the paper. Maybe he just grows up, finds a beautiful woman, gets married, has children of his own and loves them. Given the direction "Johnny's" life might have been heading when we found him, that's a miracle. I thank Catholic education for what it has done for students like "Johnny."

So far our "Tools for Tomorrow" program has helped fifteen students like "Johnny" with scholarships and every one of their parents has sent them to a Catholic school. The school was there waiting for them. It has served a lot of children already, but we found children that had been left out and would have continued to be left out, had not somebody found them a scholarship. I have seen miracles in the lives of these children because we've said that no matter how desperate your mommy and daddy's situation, we will get you into a good school.

I've been in this town for a long time, and I've found little in this town that warms my heart. But the fifteen little boys and girls in "Tools for Tomorrow" are as much of reason for me to stay in Washington as anything else I can think of. I don't think I could say that if their mothers had not found a refuge in Catholic schools. The same is true in many other cities where desperate mothers are looking for good schools for their children. The charitable work of Virginia Gilder in Albany, New York, has relied on Catholic education to help families who otherwise would have been frozen out. The same can be said of Ted Forstmann's and John Walton's Children's Scholarship Fund.

I have an abiding hope that every child in America will one day attend the best school, and every one of those children will believe that their parents are heroes for getting them into the best school. Most of us fulfill that rather naturally because we can afford to select our homes in a good neighborhood with strong schools. But for whatever reason, some families find that the school down the road does not serve the needs of that family and they need our help.

All of us should reach down deep into our hearts and find a way to help those people who are helping children, and scholarships are a wonderful way to do that. I've shared a little of my heart in this matter today. Catholic education has meant so much in the lives of these children. And I thank you for letting me share in a little of that joy, a joy I get from watching a child get started on the right path. I never missed any of my five children's graduations, and I won't miss Cornerstone School's graduation.

Mr. Armey (R-Texas) is the Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives.


Catholic and other religiously affiliated schools have been assets to this country since the seventeenth century. In light of the current educational debates going on in the United States about whether we ought to publicly fund private and religious schools, we should remember our history. We often forget that elementary and secondary schools, as well as colleges in early colonial times, were almost exclusively run by church groups. We also forget that even after the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, every state continued to levy taxes to fund and help establish elementary and secondary schools run by church-related agencies.

This support increased a little in the nineteenth century before it declined when states began to fund their own newly formed "common schools." But even those schools were not free from "religious involvement." Well into the late nineteenth century, the "common school" - now generally referred to as the "public school" - was, for the most part, still controlled and operated by diverse Protestant groups. The educational philosophy, administration, curriculum, and staffing generally represented a set of values espoused by the Protestant establishment - representing the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of citizens at the time.

No matter what form the establishment has taken, private and religious schools have always contributed to the nation's common good in the following ways:

In the early days of our nation, they were almost the exclusive source of educational services to our young people.

They provide a model of decentralization, local autonomy, and decision-making through a much smaller external administrative system than most public schools have.

They emphasize a strong sense of community and increased human concern about the needs of students, and a greater involvement of parents and staff in the overall educational activities of the school and its students.

They freely introduce moral values into the educational process.

Catholic schools often report higher academic achievement and student test scores, lower drop-out rates, higher graduation rates, higher rates of students going on to post-secondary schooling, greater stress on a core curriculum, and higher expectations for their students.

Staff members are more committed to a common vision of what a school is about. This produces a high degree of job satisfaction and a larger number of staff who say they would become teachers and administrators again, given that choice.

Catholic schools especially have, as a matter of adherence to Catholic social thought, a great commitment to the education of the poor, minorities, and non-Catholics in our inner-city urban areas. This means schools that, despite great economic sacrifice, they stay open in order to support and strengthen the changing neighborhoods and the families living there.

They willingly share educational experiences and ideas with their counterparts in an effort to improve all educational services available to all of our children.

They are of great tax benefit to the nation. Based on the per-pupil cost in public schools, if all private and religious school students were enrolled in public schools, we would add a minimum of $34.5 billion to the nation's tax bill.


The basic distinction between public, private, and religious schools is the way they are funded and the people who administer them. The truth is, there really is no "system" of private and religious schools. They might be better referred to as a loose federation of schools, owing to the wide variety of structures under which they are financed and administered.

Given the contribution private and religious schools make to the common good, the distinction "public" versus "private" schools is unfortunate. "Private" carries significant negative and elitist connotations, implying that these schools do not serve the common purpose of education and society, but rather some narrow selfish end. We in Catholic education feel that there is no such thing as a strictly "private" school. We agree with the Rev. Harold Buetow who believes that every school takes students from the public and returns them to the public. Every school uses resources from people who are part of the public and forms curricula based on the needs of the public it serves. They adhere to basic education, health, and safety standards set by the state and the community they serve, they hire teachers trained in approved institutions according to publicly certified criteria, and they are generally accredited or approved under publicly established procedures.

Seventy-five years ago, on June 1, 1925, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the landmark decision, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, that parents have the right to direct the upbringing of their children and that the state does not have the power to standardize children by requiring them to accept instruction from public school teachers only. The Court said that children are not the "mere creatures of the state," but that the parents who nurture them and direct their destinies have the right and the duty to recognize and prepare them for all additional obligations.

In 1983, the Supreme Court held in Mueller v. Allen that states could constitutionally assist parents in defraying the costs associated with their educational choices. Other more recent Court decisions have said that if governmental assistance reaches private and religious institutions through the private independent choices of each recipient, such assistance does not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.


Catholic education is committed to finding ways to help all parents fulfill their obligations to their children and society. Therefore, the Catholic Bishops of the United States believe that parents and children do not surrender their right to receive and choose a quality education because of their economic status. They believe that government at all levels, acting in partnership with parents, has a clear responsibility to provide adequate professional and material resources to assist all children to be able to attain a quality education to which, in virtue of their dignity as human beings, they have an inalienable right.

The bishops also believe that "no single educational model serves all educational needs, and policy decisions should allow for the existence of alternative educational systems including, but not limited to, charter schools; magnet schools; and public, private, and religious school choice programs, provided they offer quality academic programs and do not teach or practice intolerance or advocate illegal activity." (United States Catholic Conference, "Principles for the Educational Reform in the United States," September 1995)

The bishops favor an adequately funded federal scholarship demonstration project, tax relief for families with children, including a refundable educational tax credit for parents with children in grades K through 12, whether in public, private, or religious schools. They also support the extension of the higher education savings accounts to parents with children in elementary and secondary schools similar to the proposal that recently passed in the Senate and is currently pending in the House. These policy alternatives help parents choose the school they think will provide their children with the education parents deem most appropriate. By extension, similar proposals on the state and local levels are generally supported by the local bishops.

The bishops believe parental choice promotes educational excellence by fostering basic reforms and creating a constructive competitive climate responsive to parental concerns and helps improve academic achievement for all students. Contrary to what opponents of parental choice say, the bishops do not see parental choice as the "silver bullet" that will cure all the ills of education in the United States. There are numerous areas of concern that need to be addressed if we are to provide a quality education for all of our nation's children, but especially for the most vulnerable and at-risk children. The bishops do not oppose reforms aimed at providing a quality education in the public schools or adequate funding for public schools; their goal is to obtain justice and a quality education for all children no matter where they go to school.

Finally, not every parental choice proposal and every voucher program is a good one. School-choice programs need to give priority to those families with low and middle incomes. They need to respect the integrity and identity of private and religious schools, especially their mission, policies, and practices. These programs need to recognize the existing applicable civil rights laws, the need for accountability and adequate education about the available educational options so that parents can make appropriate and informed decisions. As the saying goes, "the devil is in the details," and Catholic educators reserve the right to review each federal, state, and local proposal to determine if it is acceptable and appropriate for our schools. Problems can arise in a number of critical areas and decisions to support a school choice proposal may vary from place to place.

Father Davis is Assistant Secretary for Catholic Schools and Public Policy at the United States Catholic Conference.


We are proud of our story in Milwaukee. The success of the voucher program makes it easier to stand up and talk about it. Let me give you a brief overview of the choice program, now that we've just finished the second year since religious schools were included, then I'll give a bit of the history of the regulatory fights that some of the schools have been involved with. I'll conclude with recommendations about what items may or may not be good to include in choice statutes.

As a preface to boring you with numbers, let me return to something Father Davis said. We should probably defer to judgments of people with practical experience in these schools. Their judgments are based on a first-hand knowledge and therefore they bring to the evaluation of the vouchers experience that we do not have. And unless we are in some minor way contemptuous of them, who are we to question their judgment?

To start nationally, there are three places in the United States with voucher programs that include religious schools: Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida. The program in Florida that began this year is very small, with fifty-two students participating. Students become eligible for choice if their schools get a "failing" grade from the state two years out of four.

Ohio has about 4,000 students in a voucher program. But the program has a case pending before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Oral arguments began June 20, so that decision could come down later in the summer or in the fall.

In Milwaukee, slightly fewer than 8,000 students attend 91 schools with vouchers, which is up from 341 kids who went to 7 choice schools in the first year of the program (1990-1991) when the vouchers did not include religious schools. The vouchers are worth up to $5,106. During the summer of 1998, when religious schools became eligible after the state supreme court upheld the legislation to include them, the number of "choice kids" jumped from 1,539 at 23 schools to 6,194 at 88 schools. Of the 91 schools in the program this year, 28 are non-religious. They have about 2,750 choice students in them, which is about 35 percent of the total "choice kids."

The other 63 schools are religious, educating 65 percent of the choice students. Of these religious schools, 38 are Catholic, with about 3,270 kids in them, which means that nearly 41 percent of all choice students are attending Catholic schools. Their parents have chosen that for them. Of those 38 Catholic schools, 33 are elementary and 5 are high schools. I dare say that educators in those schools don't think that the choice program has compromised their mission.

Twenty-two more schools have registered to be included in the program next year, which would bring the total to 114. The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) estimates that up to 10,000 students may be in the program next year. I hope that we will crack 10,000, but that is uncertain.

Of the 22 new schools, I don't think any of them were Catholic, judging from the names. But that's because most of the Catholic schools that can be in the program already are. It is heartening that four of the new schools will be Lutheran. The Lutheran schools have been skittish about participation. As far as I know, not a single Catholic school has ever decided to leave the program. Again, those numbers tell me something. Unless we assume that schools don't know what they're doing, that decision is worthy of deference. The school themselves, at least, believe that their religious mission has not been compromised, or unduly complicated, by accepting vouchers.


Now, let me briefly summarize the efforts of those opposed to school choice in Milwaukee, which turns out to be a history of harassment. I'll start from the point when the supreme court of Wisconsin allowed religious schools to be in the program by upholding expansion in the summer of 1998. The United States Supreme Court later declined to hear the case, though both parties asked it to.

Just after the 1998 court victory, as the schools were applying to be in the program by filling out the form sent to them by DPI, a lot of the newly eligible religious schools balked at a page in the application form. The top of the page read, "Student Rights." By signing this form, the school agreed to accord students many rights never granted before, and probably rights the school could not agree to.

That application scared a lot of the schools, and justifiably so. This list of "rights" was not part of the school choice statute passed by the legislators of the state of Wisconsin. DPI itself fashioned this list and tried to compel the schools to adopt it without any legislative authorization.

At that time, both houses of the state legislature happened to be controlled by those favorable to school choice, in this case, the Republican party (although the coalition favoring school choice is larger than the Republican party). The legislature wanted to clip the wings of the DPI to prevent it from exercising an authority over these schools which the department did not have, according to the voucher statute.

This was a pivotal point. If DPI successfully exercised this kind of jurisdiction over these religious schools, things really could have turned very bad. But a compromise was reached. The "Student Rights" page was pulled out of the application. The schools were willing to sign a letter saying that they knew DPI thought the rights were to be accorded. Legally, they didn't waive anything, and we got through that first moment of potential panic. The compromise has worked for two years now. DPI itself has never risen up again in opposition to the schools.

In February 1999, the first year of the expanded program, some new actors came onto the stage. People for the American Way and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP acted together in a group called Partners for Public Education (PPE). They wrote a letter of complaint to DPI saying that the schools were not following the random selection procedure as mandated by the voucher statute. But no parents were complaining about the selection system, nor did any student file a complaint against the schools. Since DPI approved the random selection process, it would have been something of an admission of guilt to have taken the letter seriously. Although DPI approved the random selection plans, it admitted that perhaps there were problems, and would try to make the process more fair the next year.

The first year of the inclusion of religious schools went smoothly. In fact, the gentleman who runs the program for DPI and works with all the schools is well-liked by the schools and amenable to suggestions. In the summer of 1999, however, the PPE hired professional testers from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Fair Housing Council to call the schools. They basically-and I believe this is a fair reading-tried to trip up the secretary, or whoever answered, into saying something that could be construed as failing to comply with the statute and the rules of the program.

Four or five testers were hired by this group. Affidavits were prepared by these testers and sent as a letter of complaint to DPI. The criticisms in this letter went beyond random selection complaints. They were also alleging violations of a provision in the statute which restricts charging fees for non-tuition costs. And in the case of the 17 religious schools out of the 18 total who were in their complaint, the letter alleged violations of the religious opt-out clause of the Milwaukee parental-choice-program statute. Of the 18 schools accused of violations, 13 were Catholic, 3 were Lutheran, and 2 were non-denominational; only one was non-religious. You might notice that the percentage of schools leans disproportionately toward religious schools, given the overall make-up of the program.

PPE demanded that DPI investigate this. The principal member of the volunteer group that had helped out during the "application scare" said that the complaint had no standing because there was no actual parent or student making a complaint and, furthermore, he pointed out that DPI had no legal jurisdiction to be investigating the schools in this way.

But DPI thought otherwise. It would go on to investigate the schools anyway. In the early summer of 2000, DPI released what it termed "a probable cause finding." It said that seven schools might be violating the choice statute or the rules, but not the "religious activity" opt-out clause. Four of the schools were Catholic, two were non-denominational, and one was Lutheran. DPI suggested mediation between the parties.

Of course, there is no party to mediate with, since no parent or student in the program made an actual complaint. The schools are perfectly willing to co-operate with DPI to make the program work, but they're not inclined to enter into mediation with a non-party, non-parent, fake, hired tester who called to trip up whoever answered the telephone.

Efforts are underway to ensure that the random selection process continues to work fairly. If a grade at a choice school is oversubscribed, students have to be randomly selected to fill the available space. Schools cannot screen out students with an admission test. They do, though, have placement tests. If you're skeptical, you think, well, it's really an admission test; they're trying to get rid of dumb kids - not to put too fine a point on it. The schools say, no, we really just need to know what grade level to put them in. Sometimes, a parents thinks the child is ready for eleventh grade, but he's actually only ready for tenth grade and there may not be room in tenth grade for another child.

DPI thinks that it would be better to have two totally separate application processes for choice students and non-choice students. You might think that way, too, if you had to run the program. But Sister Monica at St. Joan Antida High School, for instance, knows that it's not that easy. When people apply or call to talk with a prospective parent, she does not know right away whether they'll qualify for the voucher program or will need to pay their own way. The parents themselves might not know yet, because they haven't done their taxes and they don't know if they exceed the income limit. And of course, she doesn't want to assume that they can apply under the choice program as opposed to the regular admissions process. They apply according to regular admissions and hope that they qualify later for the voucher program. It's unworkable to have two totally separate application processes.

Even though some of the schools are chafing against the regulations, they're willing to pay a small price to stay in the program. Sure, there may be a little bit of a difference of opinion about how much of a price they are willing to pay, or how much they want to fight to avoid mediation. But that's the way these things go. Of the 114 schools, DPI has singled out just six it forced to mediate. And three of these probably won't face mediation, because most of the problems can be worked out easily. That's not really very much intrusion.


Let me speak briefly about a subject on which DPI has made no determination, but which may pose major problems that I hope can be avoided well in advance of a court case: the "religious activity" opt-out clause. A child can, through written request by the parent, opt out of what's called a "religious activity." Does anyone know what that means? Somebody, someday will have to come up with the legal definition of "religious activity." I don't think we should be afraid of defining it, but I think we should start preparing for that discussion.

Of course, the more important question is whether opt-out clauses should be in a voucher statute at all. One was placed in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program because its authors thought it was necessary on constitutional grounds. Many people disagreed then; I would have, had I been involved. And there are people who disagree with the clause now.

Those who disagree may have case law on their side because of the Southworth case - a Wisconsin decision about student fees. A young man claimed the right to be able to opt out of paying student fees because some of the money was going to groups with which he disagreed. But the court upheld the fees, arguing that as long as the money is neutrally disbursed, people who are religious minorities are protected from coercion without needing an additional opt-out right to protect them. So, if you transfer that decision to the school-choice context, the opt-out is not necessary as long as the aid is neutrally disbursed, which it is in almost all choice schemes.

In conclusion, school choice is a matter of justice. Justice cannot be left strictly to charity. It should be a matter of a public philosophy. We're called upon to pursue public policy that reflects the best aims of our public philosophy. When we created the PAVE program in Milwaukee - a privately-funded school voucher program-we intended it to end eventually. It literally was conceived to "pave" the way for justice in the form of state-sponsored vouchers, not as a matter of charity, but as matter of just public policy. In fact, I think the president of the Bradley Foundation was bold enough to predict at that time that the process would take three years. And it did.

I don't want to minimize concern about over-regulation of Catholic schools. The concern is justified and warranted. We deal with new threats every day. But I don't think that we should give up. What we know from Milwaukee does not provide an argument against choice.

Yes, we're fighting hard in Milwaukee. But someday a case will make it to the Supreme Court, and the pressure here will be relieved because the resources of the opposition will have to be spent elsewhere. The opposition won't give up easily. There will be little fires we'll have to put out nationwide. But vouchers are worth fighting for because the walls keeping religious schools out of school choice initiatives are starting to come down. We're inspired by Ronald Reagan who once said, "Tear down this wall." Whatever it takes, be that five to seven years fighting state by state, we will fight this out. Meanwhile, we're fighting at the barricades here in Milwaukee, and to quote Reagan's friend, Margaret Thatcher, in another context, "This is no time to go wobbly."

Michael E. Hartmann is Coordinator for Civic Renewal at The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


I believe very strongly that everything that happens is the result of God's plan. On the way to this very room as I was coming up the steps of the Capitol, I was watching these little groups of visitors from around the country talking with their congressmen. And as I passed one group I heard a child ask this question: "When will the parents who send their children to private schools get tax credits?" And I stopped.

I don't know whether that child had been prompted by somebody or whether she had been listening to the debate that's been going on in our country for the last few years. But I don't care. What her question said to me was that, once again, the children get it.

This argument, this debate, this conversation is not rocket science. It's relatively simple. There are roughly 60 million children in this country in grades kindergarten through twelfth grade, and there are only 11,000 who receive vouchers. I find it quite odd that there are groups of people, and Michael Hartmann mentioned some of them, who are literally spending millions and millions of dollars and are coming from all over this country and around the world to defeat this program. In Milwaukee, they've made no secret that they've come to set up an office with one purpose: to dismantle school choice.


To answer the question, "Are vouchers good for Catholic schools?" I think you have to use the Socratic Method. I answer that question with three others: If not us, then who? If not here, then where? And if not for the Kingdom of God and for the children, then why? That's my answer to whether or not vouchers are good for Catholic schools.

I've spent the last fourteen years working in the inner city of Milwaukee with children similar to those Congressman Armey described. Most of them come from single-parent homes, primarily female-headed, most live below the poverty level, most have experienced more violence in their few short years than any of us will experience in a lifetime. And I've also listened to mothers who come to me begging to escape the public school system.

Let's just stick with Milwaukee for now. Because Milwaukee is part of Wisconsin, a state with a good overall record in education, the city has bragged for years that it was number one or number two in SAT scores, until somebody asked what the scores were in the city of Milwaukee itself. That question met with silence. Then we discovered that most of the students in Milwaukee's public schools didn't take the SAT. Somebody then asked how our kids are doing educationally. And we discovered that the drop-out rate is higher than 50 percent. Of the kids who do graduate, the average grade upon graduation is a D+. And then, when you look at African-American males, the graduation rate is 10 percent. That's how Milwaukee public schools are doing.

Vouchers are not a panacea. I agree with Father Davis. They are an option, as are charter schools, tax credits, and other things. But vouchers are the most visible challenge to public schools we have in this country. Vouchers empower parents and give they them a sense of ownership of their schools.

I want to make it clear that as an educator and as a religious - and I've said this from the day we got involved in the voucher movement - there are some non-negotiables. One is our Catholicity. We are unwilling to teach religion after school, before school, or in the building across the street. Our religion isn't for sale. The money we're receiving from state and local taxes doesn't belong to the government. That money belongs to the people. And if the academic travesty that has happened in Milwaukee and in other cities around this country happened in the suburbs, you would see an uproar that would end all uproars.

I don't know if you caught the significance of who the members of PPE are. You could guess that People for the American Way and the National Education Association would join, but the NAACP! I was here in Washington about six weeks ago, because I was invited by the DuBois Institute to debate a couple of members of the Black Congressional Caucus, and what I heard from them shocked me. The person I debated was Major Owens; he's a congressman from New York. Major arrived a half an hour late, and then he got up and he pounded on the gavel for half an hour, and all he said was, "give us more money and leave us alone!"

When I got up and spoke, I know I hurt his feelings, because I looked at him and I said, "You know, this is going to be a real easy debate, because you haven't said a thing. But you've jumped up here, and you've got these people emotional by saying that there is a right-wing conspiracy to dismantle public education, and you know that's a lie. There is no conspiracy."

In speaking to this audience of primarily African-American, college-educated people, I told them that, as an African-American myself, what bothers me more than talk about this conspiracy is that they allowed the vice president and the president of the United States to get on national TV in front of the NEA and bash private and religious schools, when both of them attended and sent their kids to religious schools. No one said a word about that. Washington, D.C. has one of the worst public school systems in the nation, and the NAACP stands at the door of those failing schools and tells those poor, primarily minority children, "No, you can't go anywhere else."

Though I get angry with the ways things are in education, I am not bashing public schools. Public schools can do good things. In Milwaukee, we have some excellent public schools, but we also have some schools that are treated like Siberia. Nobody chooses to go there. You get sent there or you go to be punished. Very simply, vouchers give parents the power to get their children out of the schools that nobody wants to attend and go to another, be it another public school, a religious school, or a non-sectarian school. That's the same choice most middle and upper-middle-class people have.

I'm not afraid of the government stepping in and attempting to change who we are. If I was afraid, for one minute, that we were going to be changed from who we are, I'd get out of the movement. What I'm afraid of is that we're going to sit back and let apathy take over. We've already waited too long.

Look at the service industry. Ten years ago, when you went into a McDonald's or a Wendy's or a Burger King and you looked at a cash register, you saw numbers. Seven years ago, you saw words. Today, you see pictures - Big Mac, French Fry. Do you think that's just because it makes it easier? It's because many of those kids can't read. I don't know about you, but I want to know that the pilot who will fly me home today knows what he or she is doing when I step on that airplane, and did not get the job by social promotion.

In closing, I think vouchers are very good. As Fr. Davis said, you have to look each proposal individually and very carefully because the devil is in the details. But I also think that it's vitally important that we understand the urgency now. This isn't something that needs more study or more debates. Every single day around this country we are churning out kids with dysfunctional educations. And it doesn't just affect this city or that state. It affects the entire nation. We've got an obligation to do something about it.

Robert Smith, OFM, is a Capuchin Brother and the president of Messmer High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


When Catholic encyclicals and catechisms talk about education, parental rights and responsibilities are mentioned so consistently that they are a kind of leitmotif for the entire teaching. Adjectives like "primary," "grave," "supernatural," "sacred," "primordial," and "inalienable" solemnize the nature of the parental role in education. One gets the unmistakable impression that more is expected of parents than shuttling kids to soccer practice and assisting on school field trips. Indeed, the home is described as the first school and parents the first teachers. The home is where children are taught to pray and learn habits of virtue, and in some homes, learn Latin and algebra.

The development of the Catholic understanding of education goes back to St. Thomas' development of Aristotle's understanding of procreation. They begin with the notion that man naturally desires life and the indefinite continuation of his own life. Since man is not naturally immortal, he seeks to continue his life through his offspring, by replicating his identity in his children. He seeks to pass on to them the essence of his identity: his language, knowledge, religion, and family traditions.

It follows that since God chose to put himself into men as individuals that they should seek to replicate themselves in their children in a direct and intimate way. This is why the Church calls the parental obligation to educate their children "primordial" and "inalienable" - in other words, it is not transferable, but must be undertaken directly and intimately by the parents themselves.

Does this mean all Catholics should home school? No. But it does mean that whether parents choose to educate their children themselves, or through the instrumentality of a tutor or institution, that they remain their children's primary educators.


What then is the sound public policy for education according to the ideal, and do vouchers promote it? Surely the ideal is for all parents to provide for their own children's education. At present 12 percent of American children attend parent-funded schools or are home schooled. Which means we are a mere 88 percent away from the ideal.

At a bare minimum, vouchers have two different effects, depending on which group you belong to. If you belong to the 12 percent who are already paying directly for your children's education, the voucher allows you to move into the other group with the people who depend upon the government. The voucher says to private school parents: "Stop sacrificing! - whatever extra effort you've been making on behalf of your children, whatever you've been giving up - a second car, a new TV, premium beer - was all unnecessary. From now on, you will be relieved of that burden and your neighbors will pay for your children."

And what does the voucher do for those in the second group, that is, the great majority of Americans now dependent upon the State for education? It tells them that they are just the same as the private school people who sacrifice so much, because their children can now attend parent-funded schools with government money and without sacrifice. After all, do food stamps make families more self-sufficient when families are permitted to redeem them at restaurants in addition to grocery stores?

So even before we look at the effects of the public regulations of Catholic schools, which may come with vouchers, we already know something important about them: They will expand dependency on the State from 88 percent to about 99 percent - assuming some homeschoolers and prep schools refuse to accept vouchers and can still stay in business. At that point, the remnant of sacrificial, parental ownership of education will be all but wiped out.

And sacrificial involvement makes a difference. I have had the privilege of working with many, many private schools - most of them Catholic, but with every imaginable other kind as well. The scholarships our organization awards require a significant parental contribution - even the poorest families chip in something. Not once in seven years has a principal of a private school told me that parental sacrifice isn't an important part of the success of the school. No, they say: it's the soul of the school.

We all know the rule in economics: something that is free is perceived as having no value. But if you pay for something, you value it accordingly. Even a student receiving a government voucher at Brother Smith's Messmer High School knows this. On a recent PBS show about school choice, he said, "At Messmer, you really care because most of the kids here are paying to come to Messmer so they aren't going to mess up what they're doing."


The most damaging thing that vouchers might do to Catholic schools is that they turn Catholic schools from extensions of the family to extensions of the state by depriving parents of their dignity.

If you don't agree that the ideal educational environment is one where all parents are self-reliant then you might need me to say a few words about how vouchers would affect Catholic schools. I grew up in Ontario, Canada. Catholic schools there have long received public support: non-Catholic religious and independent schools don't. But in Ontario, almost without exception, these Catholic schools are Catholic in name only. In curriculum, including the health curriculum, they are virtual carbon copies of the government schools. In fact, some parents believe the sex-ed in the government schools is tamer. The bishop has virtually no control over the schools: he is but one vote on a huge board dominated by Catholic teachers-union types.

Some Catholic schools are giving up their government money and thriving in their newfound independence. Two of the most prestigious and orthodox schools in Toronto, one run by Christian Brothers, the other by Jesuits, have three applicants for every available space, and don't take a nickel of government money.

The experience of Belgium, France, Holland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Australia, where Catholic schools receive many forms of government money, shows a dilution of mission and a homogenizing effect over time. I doubt we can rely on American exceptionalism to help us buck this trend. Government money does come with strings, but it also changes the culture of the school, even without lifting a regulatory finger.

Closer to home, of the three government voucher programs in effect, in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and statewide in Florida, all have significant strings attached to them with respect to admissions, staffing, expulsions, tuition, and curriculum. In Florida and Milwaukee, the voucher must be accepted as full payment by the school. In Cleveland schools can only charge up to 10 percent above the voucher.

In 1995, Majority Leader Armey attempted the first federal voucher program for the District of Columbia. When the bill started out it was pretty clean, but by the time it came out of the House and Senate conference, it contained all kinds of stuff he didn't intend, including a provision that required written consent from any voucher - using parent before a child could participate in any religious class or activity. Another provision required schools to promise that no money from the voucher would be used for religious classes or ceremonies. This would require Catholic schools to compartmentalize their curricula into secular and religious parts, which is utterly contrary to Catholic tradition.

Very few people are aware that Cardinal Hickey let it be known, very quietly, that he would not permit the D.C. Catholic schools to participate in this program had it passed. His disapproval helped kill the bill. But not all bishops are likely to respond this way.

The bottom line is that he who pays the piper calls the tune, and that's not a bad thing. Strict accountability for public spending is laudable. Regulations always come with public spending and should. But that's one more reason why there are so few things that the government should fund.

Vouchers will also ensure that costs will always rise steadily and they will prevent the kind of innovation and price breakthroughs that we see in the private marketplace. Who will bother to invent a $1,500-a-year school when the voucher is worth $3,500? Vouchers are another method of price controls.

As vouchers gain headway, they will not be implemented without the increasing influence of the Left. The fact that many Black leaders and elements within the Democratic party traditionally opposed to vouchers are coming to favor the idea means that vouchers may pass, but not without the kind of mischievous provisions regarding tuition, curriculum, hiring, and admissions that are already quite typical without their input.

As the standards movement gains popularity, testing will be included as a standard feature in all vouchers, and these tests, written from a secular bias, will become the tail that wags the curriculum.

Finally, organizations like People for the American Way, the ACLU, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State will continue their attempts - like their current lawsuit in Milwaukee - to wreak havoc on private and religious schools participating in voucher programs.


Taken together, these items donot bode well for the future of vouchers to achieve what most of their original supporters had hoped.

Let me conclude with a vision of Catholic education thriving without vouchers. The organization for which I work, the Children's Scholarship Fund, provides tuition assistance for low-income families who wish to send their children to non-government schools, and most of them attend Catholic schools. Currently we serve about 40,000 children in 48 states. Hundreds of thousands more get assistance from Catholic aid programs and other scholarship programs. Many of these enjoy the support of the most prominent members of their communities. People believe in Catholic education even if they don't believe in Catholicism.

Today, we have the beginnings of a new tradition of charitable giving similar to that which helps needy students attend college. Last year Americans gave $185 billion to charitable causes. Ten percent of that amount would be enough to provide nearly all low-income children with scholarships for private school. But not every low-income family wants a private school, so the real amount needed is much smaller.

In the past 12 months alone, a trillion new dollars of wealth has been created on the stock market. In the past 10 years that number is at least $5 trillion. Many of those who have benefited from this windfall could personally finance large scholarship programs - even larger than the one I work at. Just as providing for one's own children is an act of duty before God, government vouchers would rob countless people of the opportunity to perform the spiritual works of mercy of supporting Catholic schools and poor families.

It is more possible now than ever before to build a network of programs of every shape and size to help low-income families take control of their children's education. And if low-income families can pay for some or most of their children's schooling, then middle- and upper-income families can certainly do it too.

On a federal policy level, I have one, simple and critical recommendation: Increase the dependent child deduction to $10,000 and index it for inflation. Keeping this much of their own money would make a big difference for struggling families who want a Catholic or other private education for their children.

But above all, Catholic schools must draw upon their faith for their continued existence; that faith gives them their name and purpose. If they lose faith, they will lose heart, and be more willing to see money as source of all hope. Like salt that loses its taste, if Catholic schools lose their Catholicity, they will eventually be of no value whatsoever to society.

In conclusion, if we really got serious about education reform we would realize that the injustice is not that Catholic schools aren't receiving government funds, but that government schools are. As long as we continue to believe in the possibility of a benign government financial monopoly, we will miss the whole secret of Catholic and other private schools, and the opportunity to spread their success. So let me whisper the secret: private schools work better because they are private. Let's keep them that way.

Mr. Dewey is the executive vice-president of the Children's Scholarship Fund in New York City. The views expressed here are his own.

This event is one of a series in the Institute's program on Catholicism and the American Public Square, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Right Reasons is an occasional publication of the Faith & Reason Institute. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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Are Vouchers Good for Catholic Education? Right Reasons Faith and Reason Institute (May, 2000).

Reprinted with permission of the Faith and Reason Institute.

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