Universal but Catholic Education
by MyLan Metzger (COL'19)
A very important part of the life of the Catholic Church throughout the world is the mission of Catholic education. When he was Cardinal in Argentina, Pope Francis stated that the education of children and young people is an “inalienable gift that flows from our original creation as children made in the image and likeness of God. And because education truly forms human beings, it is especially the duty and responsibility of the Church, who is called to serve mankind.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote in their Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, Economic Justice for All, that education is a key part of the “option for the poor” that is upheld in Catholic social teaching. Therefore, Catholic social teaching demands that Catholics think deeply about education and value it highly.
Despite the fact that education is clearly something that every child deserves, it has become a very controversial topic recently in American politics. President Trump has announced his proposed budget for the Department of Education. He and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been large proponents of school choice, which they are working to implement by putting $400 million into the budget to expand charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools, as well as $1 billion to encourage and help public schools to implement choice-friendly policies. Vouchers provide low-income children with a certain amount of money which can be used at private schools, including Catholic parochial schools. The USCCB has promoted and praised the voucher system where it has been implemented, such as in the school district of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and in Washington, D.C. The USCCB appreciates that the voucher system makes parochial schools affordable for children from low-income families who would otherwise be unable to afford a private education. The USCCB asserted that a Catholic education should be something that all Catholics have the option of participating in, and voucher programs can help enable this.
However, when examining the voucher program in Milwaukee, Daniel Hungerman, professor of economics at University of Notre Dame, discovered that while vouchers may have helped the parish school financially and led more children to attend them, they did not increase overall religious activity. The vouchers helped more churches stay open and prevented them from having to merge. On the other hand, there were large declines in church donations and less specifically religious activities. Relying financially on vouchers can lead parish schools to become primarily schools, rather than parishes. Parishioners should still remain engaged in their parish, not just use it as an institution of education. Parishioners also should not be relying on vouchers to keep their parish operating. The parish, and the whole church, revolves around an engaged and active community that strives to live out the faith. One aspect of this faith is opportunity for education. Vouchers can provide this opportunity but parents and students still must make the individual choice to be an active Catholic and to live out Catholic social teaching.
Another thing to consider when examining President Trump’s voucher program is its impact on students who do not qualify for vouchers or students who do not have access to parochial schools. Many critics argue that the voucher program takes money away from failing schools, hurting students who do not qualify for vouchers or who still would not have access to a private school. Additionally, the vouchers often do not cover the entire cost of a private education, so some of the poorest students still would not be able to attend Catholic schools without some sort of private scholarship. Those students are then stuck at the same public school but now with fewer resources. This is far from the ideal “option for the poor.” As stated previously, the voucher system then is not the complete answer to universal education and equal access to a Catholic education. Living Catholic social teaching is still a personal decision, as is the promotion of universal education.
MyLan Metzger (COL' 19) is an undergraduate studying government and theology at Georgetown.