Setting our priorities on school choice

With September now upon us, the new school year is once again bringing talk of an often-debated political issue: school choice vouchers.

A story we posted last week touted the success of school vouchers in Indiana as a source of increased enrollment in Catholic schools. Other stories popped up around the web looking at the impact of vouchers and their importance. But although few would argue against providing children with the best possible education, not everyone agrees that school choice vouchers are the way to do it.

I spent more than a year covering an intense battle in New Jersey over a school choice bill (supporters there avoided using the word “voucher” because it had developed a negative connotation). Teachers’ associations and public school advocates strongly opposed the bill, arguing–as in other states–that such legislation takes money away from the already struggling public schools to fund private education. Proponents of the bill, including the state’s Catholic bishops, claimed it was a necessity to provide alternatives for students in public school districts that were failing them. (Incidentally, the bill ultimately failed, but I suspect it will be introduced again in the next legislative session.)

The Catholic Church walks a fine line in this debate. With articles like the ones linked above, it is easy to see how the anti-voucher crowd can get the impression that Catholics support such bills only because of what they stand to gain–increased enrollment in their own schools. Why wouldn’t the church support a system, opponents argue, that diverts kids from public schools to Catholic schools and uses tax dollars to foot the bill?

Undoubtedly, Catholic schools do have a lot to gain from voucher systems, but we have to remember that is not the primary reason why Catholics support them. The real issue here is one of justice, that every child deserves equal access to a quality education regardless of their social or economic status.

Our agenda isn’t about self-preservation, it is about doing what is best for everyone. That means we want to see all kids get a quality education, no matter what school they attend. That might mean working toward a better public school system in some cases, or it might mean helping families find alternatives when the public schools aren’t the best option. It’s an added bonus for the church if the best option is a Catholic school, and if that option is made available to more families who want a Catholic education for their children. But when it comes to supporting school vouchers, we have to remember that it’s not about what’s best for us.