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Issue Date:  December 7, 2007

-- CNS/Catholic Standard/Rafael Crisotomo

Teacher Brittney Cunningham words with fourth-grader Amber Garrett at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian School in Washington in October. Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian is among seven urban Washington Catholic schools that have struggled financially and will likely become public charter schools.
Church schools' lack of government support 'a disaster,' cardinal says


The Vatican’s point man on education has described the lack of government support for Catholic schools in the United States as a “disaster,” and suggested that it reflects a lack of “full democracy” that would enable parents to choose the educational option they desire for their children.

Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, a Pole who serves as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, spoke at a Nov. 20 Vatican news conference to present a new document, “Educating Together in Catholic Schools,” about collaboration between laity and religious orders in church-affiliated schools.

In response to a question about state support for Catholic schools in various parts of the world, Grocholewski asserted that “the United States is a disaster.”

“The state does not recognize full democracy for Catholic schools,” he said. Although “Catholic schools are certainly no worse than the public schools” in America, Grocholewski said, the financial strain on parishes, dioceses and religious orders “makes it difficult to achieve the same economic conditions as the state schools.”

Msgr. Angelo Zani, the undersecretary of the Congregation for Education, likewise called upon governments to respect the “sacrosanct liberty of parents to choose the educational option for their children.”

In essence, both men argued, an absence of state support prices some families out of private education, thereby compromising their freedom of choice.

To date in the United States, so-called “voucher” programs providing public funds for parents who enroll their children in a private school have gotten off the ground in only about half a dozen states and districts. Most vouchers are offered to students in low-income families, low performing schools, or special-education programs.

Over the years, experiments with voucher programs in the United States have sometimes been criticized for violating the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing religion, but in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote upheld a voucher program in Cleveland on the grounds that the goal of improving educational quality is a legitimate secular aim.

Ironically, during their fall meeting in Baltimore the American bishops elected as the new head of their education committee one of the few prelates in the country who has voiced ambivalence about vouchers, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles. While not necessarily opposed to public support, Curry has warned over the years that government money never comes without strings attached. The long-term consequence of vouchers, Curry has warned, may be the secularization of Catholic schooling.

Globally, Zani said, there are roughly 250,000 Catholic schools at the K-12 level, with a student population of 42 million and a teaching corps of 3.5 million. The Vatican does not have any data, he said, about how many of these schools receive state support, or what percentage of either students or faculty are Catholic.

Zani offered the following observations about the United States:

“In the United States, 27 percent of students in Catholic schools are minorities, and 13.5 percent are non-Catholic. Moreover, 43.2 percent of all Catholic schools are located in the poorest areas,” he said.

“Recent years have witnessed a statistically significant phenomenon, above all at the level of large metropolitan areas. Some religious congregations and dioceses with a strong tradition of scholastic institutions, usually attended by students from the middle classes, are deciding to withdraw from these large institutions. Facing new forms of poverty, they’re entrusting these institutions to others in order to open smaller scholastic structures of high quality aimed especially at the poorest and most disadvantaged classes in urban areas or to students from minority backgrounds.

“The drop-out rate in Catholic schools is 3.4 percent, in comparison to 14.9 percent in public schools,” Zani said. “Ninety-nine percent of students in Catholic high schools graduate, and 97 percent go on to the university level.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2007

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