Not by Bread Alone

Recently a friend recounted a telling comment expressed by the admissions officer of a local, exclusive social club: “Why are the young adults who join here so lacking in manners? They could learn from the eighth graders over at Nativity Prep who shake your hand when they meet you, look you in the eye, and address you by name!”Manners are not the only benefit typically associated with the education offered in Catholic schools. Others include academic excellence, moral formation, civic responsibility, discipline and a broad exposure to the arts and sciences. Proponents of Catholic education hold that these benefits, especially the ones touching on moral and spiritual development, are not so readily provided in public schools.

Yet, over the past decades the opportunity to receive a Catholic education has been drastically reduced. In the 1960s, 5.5 million American children attended almost 13,000 Catholic schools. In 2008 there are fewer than 2.5 million students in 8,700 schools. Many insist that the dwindling force of Catholic education does not bode well for our society because without it we lose the clearest reflection we have of western civilization, that historic reality that underpins our nation. In a narrower sense, the disappearance of Catholic schools in inner city areas is particularly critical as often they are the only hope for the disadvantaged urban youth, Catholic or not, to escape poverty and ignorance.

For some time there has been serious talk about allowing the Catholic school system in this country to lapse into desuetude. Fortunately, in the past 15 years or so the laity—many themselves products of the “golden years” of parochial schools in the 1950s—have discovered that far from being a luxury Catholic education is a necessity, and the system of delivering has to be addressed and expanded with all the skills of 21st century management.

What’s more the laity have accepted this as their challenge. In this regard, the Philanthropy Roundtable has just published “Saving America’s Urban Catholic Schools: A Guide for Donors” by Stephanie Saroki and Christopher Levenick. In this slim volume we learn about the impressive efforts of local and national organizations—too numerous to mention here—who have taken on the challenges of inculcating and strengthening in the school system good governance, marketing, academic standards, new delivery models, university partnerships, tuition support and Catholic identity.

Consider the examples set by the Cristo Rey or Nativity/Miguel Networks now national in outreach and serving primarily minority populations. We also read about the bold collaboration not just among schools but among dioceses such as the Mid-Atlantic Catholic School Consortium (six dioceses!).

There are many other such examples in this well written “guide”. There is also a list of great ideas in need of funding—all signs of real and potential vitality.

One of the final chapters has to do with public policy. Here the advocacy of tuition vouchers and parental choice is explored. Will the public become more and more aware of the contribution Catholic education makes to society and the tremendous cost savings it affects? If so, will the day come when funds that now support all students in public schools be used to support students in Catholic schools as well?

Catholic education teaches a student not just skills but also the underlying Truth for which these skills should be applied. In doing so it better prepares him for the vicissitudes that await him as the Kingdom advances. Would not a tuition voucher be a ticket for a smoother journey?

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