Catholic Schools for Immigrants: A Second Bloodless Social Revolution

As the immigration debate continues, one question haunts me: What can we do to educate immigrants' children? The question eats at me because I and millions of others are children of immigrants. We grew up when it was expected that we would go to Catholic schools. As a result, children whose parents had little if any schooling got top-flight educations, went to college and entered the professional world. It was a bloodless social revolution that we didn't even know we were part of. Everybody won.

The challenge now: How do we do the same for children of immigrants today?

First: We must aim high and avoid the discrimination of low expectations. These children need to know Catholic schools are there for them. Their parents need to see that attending Catholic schools is possible. Pastors need to push them.

Second challenge: We must make Catholic schools a realistic option. We need to explore and expand programs such as Christo Rey Network, the Jesuit initiative which provides solid academic education with real life work experience in business. Potentially college-bound youth earn their tuition as they work alongside business people. Another program is the Alliance for Catholic Education, known as ACE, and launched at the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame and other college grads in the ACE program teach in low-income Catholic schools and earn their master's degree in education free of charge. Still another is the Sisters Academy of Baltimore, an independent tuition-free Catholic middle school operated by several orders of nuns for girls from low-income neighborhoods.

Given the sorry state of urban schools, the government needs to do its part by supporting parental choice and allowing businesses to get tax credits from donations to alternative education for children in failing public schools. Sixteen states have parental choice programs. Pennsylvania has scholarship tax credits through which businesses receive tax credits for donations to school programs for the underprivileged. The effort benefits not only parents and students but also the neighborhood because Catholic schools are stabilizers.

Third challenge: We must be creative as we address a social problem. Head Start began in 1964 as an endeavor of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. It helped level the kindergarten playing field as it offered reading readiness to preschoolers from families in need.

All of the above involve changes in approach by parents, churches, schools and government. They invite people to show the will to give educational opportunities to this new generation.

Research in recent decades shows Catholic school education works. Their students demonstrate higher academic achievement than their public school peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, note several researchers, including William Sander writing in the Journal of Human Resources as far back as 1996. The more disadvantaged a child is the greater the relative achievement gains he or she experiences in a Catholic school, according to Darlene Eleanor York in an essay "Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools." A child who is black or Latino is 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college if he or she attends a Catholic school, according to Derek Neal writing on "Why Catholic Schools Spell Success for America's Inner-City Children."

We're at a critical juncture. The church has unabashedly worked for immigrant rights. Immigrants, documented and otherwise, provide services we all use -- in homes, restaurants, construction, and health care, for example. A move toward Catholic education for immigrants' children would be a sign of welcome and a wise national investment for the long run.