The conference dialogue was oriented around four key sets of inquiries:
- What is the role of private philanthropy in the financing of at-risk Catholic and other faith-based schools. What could it be?
- What is the role of public funding in the financing of at-risk Catholic and other faith-based schools. What could it be?
- What can the experience of other faith traditions with experience in inner-city education teach K-12 Catholic education?
- What has the expanding charter school market meant to crisis inner-city Catholic and other faith-based schools now face? What, if any, are the opportunities created by the growth of this market?
As the dialogue progressed in response to these inquiries, three themes emerged. These themes, while not necessarily comprehensive, capture the sense of extraordinary opportunity that the ongoing crisis school closures has actually presented. They were as follows:
Advancing the Educational Rights of Families
It is clear that the principle that parents and families are the primary educators of children – once a staple of the American educational enterprise – no longer enjoys a privileged position in our cultural consciousness. The entire K-12 educational system (both public and non-public schools) is clearly optimized when the families it serves have an ownership stake. Yet we have essentially developed a system in which all members of society have some form of choice in where and how their children are exercised – except the poor. This condition represents what can arguably be described as the social justice issue of this era.
Financing reforms grounded in the educational rights of families return to the principle that has for so long animated the enterprise of K-12 Catholic education: the social justice imperative of protecting those at greatest risk. As such, the Church and its leaders should take aggressive and concerted action to advance instruments of policy (such as targeted scholarship programs such as tax credits and vouchers) and strategic philanthropy (such as highly leveraged private scholarship funds) that can give low-income families systemic and sustainable access to quality K-12 Catholic and other faith-based schools.
The Primacy of Mission
In an era of increasing proliferation of educational models, it is more important than ever that Catholic schools – both as a system and as constitutive institutions – passionately articulate their exceptional mission. As the US Bishops recently asserted, “Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the fourfold purpose of Christian education, namely to provide an atmosphere in which the Gospel message is proclaimed, community in Christ is experienced, service to our sisters and brothers is the norm, and thanksgiving and worship of God is cultivated.”
While it is clear that the financing model of inner-city Catholic schools needs to be revitalized, this should in no way suggest that doing so should affect compromising the mission of Catholic schools. To the contrary, the vitality of these schools may in fact depend on their willingness to assert their distinct and vibrant Catholic mission. In doing so, Catholic schools can refocus the attention of potential investors on their unparalleled track record of providing a strong return on investments in inner-city education.
Collaborating with Traditional and Non-traditional Partners in the Education Reform Movement
Just as the causes of this crisis defy reduction to one or two issues, so too must the responses to it. Rather than attempting to identify one or several “magic bullets” through which at-risk Catholic schools may be revitalized, we must instead attempt to develop highly leveraged, multi-layered responses to both the cost and supply sides of the equation.
As such, Catholic school advocates should first work to articulate the ongoing crisis as the responsibility of the entire Church; lay and clerical, institutions and individuals, universities and parish counsels must work toward a coherent statement of the privileged position of K-12 Catholic schools as “the heart of the Church.” In addition, we must be more assertive in forming partnerships with non-traditional allies across the education reform spectrum – teacher and principal formation programs, private school financing ventures, public/private partnerships – to demonstrate that these struggles are the responsibility of the entire K-12 educational system. Any meaningful reform strategy must be fundamentally oriented towards raising the national consciousness about the extraordinary stakes involved, and the shared responsibility to respond to this vital matter of social justice.