Should the Church make Catholic education affordable for all families? Every Catholic parent has to consider how to educate his or her children. Usually this consideration boils down to a simple binary of whether to send her child to Catholic school or to public school.
My wife and I, both of whom have attended and worked at Catholic schools, almost instinctively want our two-year old daughter to have a Catholic education. It seems odd to think that a Catholic school would make a difference for her—after all, she doesn’t know the alphabet, let alone the Catechism—but we know an education that considers the well-being of the whole human person and introduces truth, goodness, and beauty at an early age—along with the great spiritual and sacramental gifts of the Church—will help form her for life.
The decision isn’t easy for many parents because the local church has done little in the last several decades to form the parental understanding on the need for Catholic education. If you are lucky, your priest might remind you in a homily about the importance of forming your children’s Catholic conscience and of raising them to be faithful Catholics. Few priests will argue that this kind of formation requires a Catholic education. Many parents thus assume that going to Mass and CCD is enough.
Catholic teaching might state that the parents are the primary educators of their children (the phrase is taken from the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum educationis), but the majority of parents decide to outsource their child’s education to the local school board or the diocese, two entities guided largely by prevailing cultural norms or bureaucratic efficiencies. More often than not, parents are not equipped to understand curriculums and school culture. The Church responds primarily by doubling-down on her simple request: place your child with us and we will take care of his or her education.
That trust is misplaced. Not lost amidst the Archbishop of San Francisco’s attempts to ensure fidelity to the magisterium among his teachers is the reality that his action is a last-ditch salutary effort. The majority of his teachers and his administrators openly reject Catholic doctrine, embracing syncretism with the culture rather than the Catholic heart and mind. This group of educators is hardly the canary in the coal mine. The canary died several generations ago. Indeed, we’re now several generations into adult lapsed Catholics misanthropically boasting about their Catholic education.
Of course, we all know many great (and usually expensive!) Catholic schools. The landscape is not so bleak that I cannot fondly and proudly look back at the parochial middle school and private high school I attended, as well as a Catholic graduate school. My teachers were not just competent and orthodox, but lived the faith in the frailty of their lives (that is, they were no holy rollers).
Still, my own education was a mix. I attended the local public elementary school and attended public university for undergraduate and law. The Catholic options were not available at a price point that I could reasonably afford. Had I attended one of the more prominent Catholic law schools in the country, I would have graduated with a six-figure debt. That debt may have had a significant impact on my own discerning of my vocation to marriage. It would have been hard to ask my now-wife to help me pay off my significant debt—essentially making it our debt—and starting our family.
Unfortunately, now that my first little one is ready to head off to preschool, I am realizing that the Catholic schools I attended and the ones to which I would want to send my children are decidedly outside the affordable price range for just one child. A Catholic primary and secondary school education (let alone a college education) is simply out of the price range for median income families in my local area. This says nothing of the fact that faithful Catholic families are “fruitful and multiply” and with those joys come too the expenses. Especially in a well-to-do metropolitan area, many Catholic private schools compete directly with their secular private counterparts for the upper-middle-class, well-to-do dollar, pricing out the local family or children of alumni.
Education is a hard business. It does not help that public-funded schools essentially outclass Catholic schools in academics. Who always has the better science lab, for example? There is a perception that a well-off public school prepares a child for the world much better than the Catholic school does . The segmentation and benefits that the alumni of elite universities provide one another seems to trickle down to well-off (or at least, not bad) public schools. Many high schools create a strong cultural and communal tie to their neighborhoods, which often last a lifetime.
The discussion that Pope Francis has encouraged of the Church’s response to poverty and human need has not affected how we talk about our Catholic schools. The Church seems unable to sustainably fund Catholic education and make it accessible to everyone. If the education of Catholic children is as important as Catholic teaching says it is, the question of funding can’t be left to struggling parishes and sacrificing families.
In the longer term, the Church should ask not only how to fund her schools but whether the need for such an education might be provided by other forms. Catholic education might not necessarily mean “Catholic branding” or at worst “normal education sprinkled with the Catechism.” The rise of the classical school movement (and even some classical charter public schools, like the Great Hearts system in Arizona), raises the serious question as to whether “Catholic branding” in the 9 to 3 schooling environment is a sine non qua for a Catholic education.
If the intellect and moral imagination is being formed by the virtuous past of human tradition, there is no tension between faith and education. Can we consider pedagogies and approaches that are not strictly “Catholic” as still being formed by the Catholic heart, mind, and imagination? The recent recovery of Montessori education as a Catholic education seems to point to the answer being yes.