Catholic Schools in the Spotlight
Catholic Schools in the Spotlight
Role of Faith and Education Debated
By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, OCT. 7, 2007 (Zenit.org).- State funding of Catholic schools has been a hotly debated topic in the lead-up to Oct. 10 legislative elections in the Canadian province of Ontario.
John Tory, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, raised the issue when during the campaign he questioned why Catholic schools in the province are state-funded while other faith-based schools are not, reported the National Post newspaper Aug. 25.
Tory, who is hoping to unseat the ruling Liberal Party Ontario premier, Dalton McGuinty, proposed extending public funding to other faiths, at an estimated cost of 400 million Canadian dollars (US $407).
The newspaper article explained that the decision to fund provincial Catholic schools dates back to the 1867 Constitution Act, which established in Canada two systems of publicly funded education: government and Catholic. Other provinces have since changed their education funding, but this has not been the case in Ontario.
In reply to Tory’s proposal some critics proposed simply eliminating any public funds for all faith schools. “The best course of action would be to simply eliminate public funding for Ontario’s Catholic schools,” opined an editorial in the Globe and Mail newspaper on Sept. 6.
The editorial echoed a censure heard with frequency in some quarters, saying: “As we struggle to avoid the polarization of ethnic and religious minorities, governments should not be contributing to it by encouraging kids to interact only with members of their own faith.”
An opinion supported by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in an open letter dated Sept. 21 written to Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne, said: “Public funding of religious schools will drain resources from the public system and promote private schools at the expense of public schools.”
The province’s Catholic bishops had their say in the altercation, reported the Ottawa Citizen newspaper on Sept. 10. “The public funding of Catholic schools recognizes that parents have the right to make educational choices for their children, and that the state should assist them,” said a statement issued by Bishop James Wingle, head of the Diocese of St. Catharines and president of the Ontario conference of bishops.
“The primacy of parental rights in education is a value which should be realized not only by Catholic parents, but also by others,” the prelates’ continued.
The bishops also stated that they “respect and support the wishes of parents in other faith communities for religion education in the public school system or for alternative schools which reflect their beliefs and values.”
Faith-based education was also criticized in England recently, by columnist Zoe Williams, in a commentary written Sept. 19 for the Guardian. Her article came after the decision of Catholic schools in Northern Ireland to disband their support groups for Amnesty International, owing to its adoption of a pro-abortion stance.
Williams accused Christians of “prosecuting an agenda that is repugnant,” through their schools and argued that they should not receive any public funds.
Times opinion columnist Alice Miles previously expressed similar sentiments. In a May 23 article, she accused the middle classes of using the faith schools “as a barely covert form of social and academic selection.”
Selecting on belief
Schools run by Anglicans or the Catholic Church, Miles argued, should not be allowed to select pupils on the basis of belief, but should simply accept anyone who applies to enter.
The question of using religious criteria to select pupils also came up recently in Ireland, reported the Irish Times newspaper on Sept. 15.
Replying to criticisms of Catholic schools, Bishop Leo O’Reilly, chairman of the Irish bishops’ education commission, said that the schools were founded by the Church to provide a Catholic education for its members.
Parents have a right to have their children educated in Catholic schools, and having contributed through taxes to fund public education, it is not unfair that the faith schools receive government funds, argued Bishop O’Reilly.
The right of parents to choose what sort of education they wish for their children, he added, is supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.
Shortly afterward, Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh spoke about the topic of faith schools in a speech given Sept. 21 for the launch in Belfast of a Web site for the Consultative Group on Catholic Education.
At a time of moral confusion, he argued, Catholic education defends the dignity of the human person and offers a set of values based on the Gospel.
Labeling such an education as divisive is simply not the truth, Archbishop Brady maintained. “Reconciliation, love of neighbor, respect for difference: These values are intrinsic to Catholic education because they are intrinsic to the message of Jesus,” he said.
“We do not abandon children to the ‘whatever you think yourself’ approach to morality so often associated with a purely secular or state-based education often found in other countries,” the archbishop added.
The advantages of a Catholic education were enough to persuade even an atheist to make a large donation, as an article posted May 23 on Bloomberg.com explained. Retired hedge-fund manager Robert W. Wilson announced he was giving $22.5 million to the Archdiocese of New York to fund a scholarship program for needy inner city students attending Catholic schools.
“Let’s face it, without the Roman Catholic Church, there would be no Western civilization,” Wilson said.
Nevertheless, Catholic schools face trials in some areas. In Washington, D.C., Archbishop Donald Wuerl is proposing to convert eight out of the 28 Catholic schools into charter schools, due to financial pressures, reported the Washington Post on Sept. 8.
The plan means the schools lose their religious identity, as they would be run by a secular body. Archbishop Wuerl said this was the only way to continue providing education for many low-income families.
Chicago is also facing a time of transition, as an article published Sept. 11 in the Chicago Tribune newspaper reported. Chicago’s Catholic schools educate 98,000 students, but responsibility for this task now depends on laypeople instead of members of religious orders.
Citing data from the National Catholic Education Association, the article noted that while in the 1950s about 90% of the Catholic teaching staff was made up of religious brothers and sisters. Today, there are only 206 religious teaching in Chicago’s Catholic schools, or 4% of the staff.
Meanwhile, Catholic schools in Australia face a different kind of situation. Private schools, many of them Catholic, are flourishing. An article published Feb. 27 by the Australian Associated Press reported that the number of students at independent and Catholic schools had risen by 21.5% since 1996.
Over the same period, numbers in government schools increased by just 1.2%. By the end of last year, 66.8% of Australia’s 3.36 million full-time school students went to government schools, down from 70.7% in 1996.
In spite of the numerical success there are concerns over the Catholic identity of the Church schools. On Aug. 8 the bishops of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory issued a statement titled “Catholic Schools at a Crossroads.”
In it, they observed that over the past two decades the proportion of children in their schools from non-practicing Catholic families has risen considerably. As well, enrollments from non-Catholics have more than doubled to 20% from 9%.
The bishops urged school leaders to study how to maximize enrollment of Catholic students and also to work in order to maintain the religious identity of their institutions. The document recommended a greater space for prayer and liturgy, along with sound religious education. Maintaining the Catholic identity of schools in clearly no easy task in today’s world.