- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With Pope Benedict XVI safely home from American soil, many reflect on how his charge that we raise our children to seek peace and justice can occur without the institution of Catholic schools. Whether the subject is the conversion of a Catholic to charter school in D.C., or closing one like St. Joseph’s in Petersburg, Va., it’s time for serious action to sustain what for many children has been their only stabilizing force. Catholic-school attendees — Catholic or not — witness the Catholic doctrine at work — the worldly, all-inclusive, all-encompassing effort to unite people to participate, to care.

Urban Catholic schools have existed with scarce cash from the poor and philanthropy which was once plentiful but grows difficult to find with declining church support. Suburban Catholic schools are also challenged by a decline. Despite the rock-star mentality many affluent Catholics felt upon the pope’s arrival, most Catholic parents see little reason to send their children to Catholic schools when a “free” public school appears sufficient.

Many parents, appalled by the almost complete deprivation of a moral code their kids face in a conventional public school, would prefer to enroll their children in Catholic schools but are constrained by finances. And therein lies the one missing ingredient from all the otherwise great analysis about Catholic education today. A yearly property-tax bill of $10,000 in Montgomery County, Md., and state income taxes buys a ticket to free public education, but I choose to spend on Catholic schools. That luxury comes at a price to most Americans and is impossible for many.

When tax policies are adverse to family needs and community values, civic and cultural institutions necessary for our continued growth individually and as global citizens suffer. Economics send women outside of the home to work much earlier than they may have wished after having children. Economics have an inordinate influence over — and often make or break — one’s housing, health and schooling decisions. Political affiliation aside, presidents and Congresses created tax credits to grow or save vital industries whenever there is need. Incentives to keep businesses from moving abroad, health care, enterprise zones for troubled communities — these and more programs exist because of the public good that would be lost without them.

But when supporters of Catholic schools have visited capitals to ask for similar tax credits, they’ve been slammed by union-friendly lawmakers who consider it government-subsidized religion. On Capitol Hill in the 1980s, advocates for tax credits were maligned and criticized. Naysayers claim the idea undermines the wall between church and state, though most scholars concur that government permits taxpayer-directed support (not ownership) of religious institutions.

As their survival becomes more tenuous, appreciation for the contributions of Catholic schools emanates from the media — arguments that we must save this venerable institution and the social capital it has produced.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the District — now closed — gave one recent acquaintance the grounding to attend the prestigious Portsmouth Abbey School as well as college and law school. He now chooses to lead a school. That’s social capital. You can’t manufacture it without strong social institutions, like Catholic schools which produced many of this nation’s leaders. These same individuals may contribute financially to Catholic schools. Not enough of them push for political change that saving Catholic schools necessitates. Imagine how a tax credit program — or even a voucher — could have helped save Perpetual Help. We subsidize the Lincoln Memorial, the National Gallery of Art , but not a Catholic school, when the latter reduces crime and graduates students well above the public 53 percent. The same politics that command we attend to global warming ignore the salvation many receive from Catholic schools. Rather than see these schools as social capitalists, we have permitted them to be scorned as instruments of the church that have no end other than doctrine — that is, until we realize we may be losing something, the impact of which is far greater than we think of when we read of one or two schools closing.

As we reflect on the extraordinary visits of Pope Benedict, Americans are obligated to consider that the schools that were once founded to defend the Catholic faith have actually saved students, their families and communities.

The great attention not withstanding, hand-wringing and talk will only do so much. Real policy change can help save Catholic schools — a truly great, truly American institution.

Jeanne Allen is president of the Center for Education Reform.

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