Celebrating Our Nation and School Choice

The following blog was contributed by Margaret Kaplow, director for marketing communications and manager, public relations for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

Catholic Schools Week, January 31 – February 6, is the national celebration of Catholic school education and the theme for February 3 is Celebrating Our Nation. Students, educators and families can communicate the value of Catholic school education to government leaders and pray for the nation and recognize all those who serve our country.

Catholic Schools Week is an opportunity for Catholic schools to showcase their best attributes, increase enrollment and tell their school’s story. In a non-pandemic year, the weeklong celebration includes Masses, teacher-student basketball games, open houses for new and prospective families, coffee hours with local business leaders, no-uniform days, community service and much more. Adhering to CDC health guidelines, this year looks a little different with virtual open houses, livestreamed Masses, friendly competitions held with six feet of distance between competitors. Still, Catholic education is to be celebrated. Academic excellence, character formation and the evangelizing mission of Catholic education draws families to Catholic schools, but for many it means sacrifice. 

For more than two centuries, Catholic bishops, pastors and parents have educated children in parish and private schools with the intention of offering the life-giving Word of the Gospel in an environment that shows respect for the human person, the virtues of good citizenship and academic excellence. This effort has been done without aid or subsidies from state or federal monies but largely through the tenacious efforts of parents, pastors and grass roots fundraising. Based on public school per pupil cost, Catholic schools save the nation more than $22 billion a year. In addition to a national savings, 99 percent of Catholic school seniors graduate each year; 84 percent of those students go on to graduate from college. The success of Catholic schools is one of the Catholic Church’s best stories in the United States.

The challenging reality is that tuition costs remain a major obstacle for parents who want to choose their children’s school. Many Catholic schools offer tuition subsidies and scholarships, thanks to the generosity of dioceses, parishes and private philanthropy, but these cannot serve all families and are tenuously sustainable. Fortunately, parent or school choice policies offer an opportunity to families who are unable to “choose” by changing their zip codes.

Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia offer 65 publicly financed programs  (vouchers, scholarship tax credits and educational savings account programs) that help parents choose a private or faith-based education for their children. The Catholic education community’s commitment to empowering families’ decision-making with school choice and the incredible witness our schools provide means we cannot be silent in this debate. In fact, school choice is one of the issues NCEA supports when working with other Catholic organizations such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Council for American Private Education (CAPE) and Catholic Education Partners (CEP) when advocating to Congress for Catholic school education.

During this Catholic Schools Week, all supporters of Catholic school education are invited to get involved by learning more about school choice and by checking the American Federation for Children interactive map for a state-by-state list of which states have some form of school choice programs. If your state does not have any programs to support school choice, you can use a congressional list categorized by state to contact legislators to make your voice known about school choice.

The Vatican Council in 1965 stated, “Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.” For that choice to be meaningful, public funds for education should follow each child to the school that parents choose. It is important to emphasize that empowering families to direct their children’s education will not undermine communities or diminish local school districts; instead, choice levels the playing field and strengthens local bonds as we all work together to improve education.