Would School Vouchers Promote Better Education?

(Are they good for Catholic Schools?)

This autumn we will hear a lot about the "school voucher" issue. It is a proposal to give back to parents some of their tax money so they can choose which school to send their children. While not in the same category as questions like abortion and the death penalty, still it merits reflection and discussion. And it particularly affects a parish community like Holy Family where the major part of our budget goes to supporting our elementary school.

Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles had an interesting reflection on school vouchers in an article titled Woman's Right to Choose. He stated:

"I am vigorously pro-choice, because I believe in the individual's right to make choices in life and in our society. But I sure want to specify what that choice is all about, and as a church leader, to make certain that one is supporting a moral good in that choice."

Among the moral goods Cardinal Mahoney supports is: "The right to choose a school to send her children, and if that choice is really to be protected, to have a voucher to back it up."

On one level the issue seems to be one of simple justice. Consider: In 1998 the Seattle School District spent $7,639 per pupil. (See: http://www.seattleschools.org/district/general/sps.pdf) At that rate Holy Family School saves taxpayers $2,024,335 a year! This saving to other citizens comes as a result of great sacrifices on the part of our parents as well as the the overall parish community.

Catholic schools can hardly be placed in the same class as expensive, elite private schools. In A National Study On The Viability Of School Choice David E. Kapel of Rowan University gave this analysis of per pupil cost: "The public schools per student average cost ranged from $6,365 to $7,874. The privates ranged from $6,365 to $9,150 and the Catholic school range was from $1,743 to $3,335." Holy Family is within that range - in other words, less than half the per pupil cost of the Seattle School District.

Beyond these figures the issue becomes more murky - at least in my mind. I received my own education from public schools until I entered college seminary. Of course that was back in fifties and early sixties. Today, like everyone in the country, I am concerned not only for our Catholic schools but that all our schools be the best possible and that education of our children be a top priority. I personally believe a little competition would make all of our schools better. School vouchers would spur that competition.

On the other hand I have to admit I worry about the issue of Catholic identity. Government aid to Catholic universities has brought with it government control. Charles E. Rice, professor of law at Notre Dame, describes the Decline and Fall of the Catholic University in an article with the evocative title Esau's Bargain. You will remember that Esau was the one who cared so little for his birthright that he sold it for a bowl of pottage (Gen 25:29). Professor Rice's article (Catholic Dossier, August 1997) describes how Catholic universities resisted Church authority, but at the same time welcomed the much more pervasive interference which comes from accepting government aid. In the process, though they have kept the Catholic name, many have sold out that identity.

Whether a school voucher program would avoid that pitfall is an important question. Obviously much would depend on the sense of Catholic identity of principals, teachers and parents - as well as pastors. None of us wants Catholic schools to simply become more efficient versions of public schools.

I realize the issues are complex and, as I mentioned, far from settled in my own mind. I would welcome other perspectives, even a "guest column" for this website. It could help all of us reflect on this issue which is so vital to future of our country and to the well being of our children.

These are hard issues, but also ones we as Catholics cannot ignore. At the deepest level they call each of us to a renewed commitment to our faith, to what it means to be followers of Jesus. For us that must always be the wellspring of our vision and actions

--Fr. Phil Bloom
August 18, 2000


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