What's So Threatening About Private Schools?

For a brief period of time, I taught in Ireland in the public system. Since those days, I have developed an admiration for teachers, the difficulty of their task, their significant contribution to the personal development of their students and their impressive commitment. Education is a very meaningful, complex and challenging profession.

Years later, when I became an employer in Southern California, I met many young African Americans, Hispanics and Whites looking for work. Most I could not hire but I always took time to encourage them and guide their future search. It was during these conversations that I came to realize how badly, as a community, we had failed them in their education. As a community we had to be accountable

My parents made a fascinating experiment. They sent my two sisters to a Catholic high school, just outside Paris, after which the two of them became prominent scientists. They sent my brother and me to public schools. My brother followed a professional road less traveled and has achieved remarkable success in the area of negotiation formation. By comparison, I have had very modest achievements but, interestingly, I became a priest.

Since the French Revolution, with the exception of the short period of the Restoration, France has had an impeccable record of commitment to the secularist orthodoxy. Yet even within this perfectly clear structure of separation from the spiritual world, substantial accommodations have been made for private, largely catholic, education. The position reflects a philosophy of respect for the rich history as well as an enlightened recognition of religious schools' positive contributions to society.

Recently, Politico published an excellent article by Maggie Severns on the Native American public school experience. Bleakly, she writes: "The network of schools for Native American children run by an obscure agency of the Interior Department remains arguably the worst school system in the United States, a disgrace the government has known about for eight decades and never successfully reformed." Education Secretary Arne Duncan describes the gloomy reality with uncharacteristic but commendable candor: "It's just the epitome of broken, just utterly bankrupt."

In my opinion, in light of this acknowledged disaster, the continued challenges directed at private religious education are inexcusable. There are numerous examples across the country of religious schools being unfairly targeted by federal or state agencies. Meanwhile, the Montana Department of Revenue recently redefined the term: "qualified education provider" in such a way as to exclude private religious schools. The new definition prevents donors from obtaining state tax credits, under a new school choice law, for contributions to student scholarship organizations that benefit students attending Catholic or other religiously affiliated schools. The grave and urgent situation described in the Politico story clearly calls for partnership not antagonism.

Matt Brower, the remarkably capable Director of the Montana Catholic Conference that is charged with legislative issues affecting the Church gave the following testimony at the Montana Department of Revenue hearing regarding school choice. He said: "Over 23% of our students are Native American, most of whom attend one of our five Indian schools... Parents and others who wish to help students attend religiously affiliated schools by contributing to student scholarship organizations shouldn't be discriminated against simply because the scholarships will be used for attendance at a Catholic or other religiously affiliated school."

In my congregation, I have many children attending Catholic and public schools. They are all my children. I am a friend of parents who send their children to Catholic and to public schools. I have excellent friends, whom I respect greatly, who teach in both systems. Education is a collaborative effort not a competitive one. What some clearly find threatening in religious private schools is precisely their greatest contribution. They have independent values and offer a different perspective on life. The secular society that understands and celebrates this is always at its best. School choice is ultimately about the choice of society.

For many years, Olivier Messiaen had two jobs: professor of composition at the very secular and highly prestigious Paris School of Music (Conservatoire) and organist at an historic church. His compositions celebrated as brilliant 20th century masterpieces are inspired by his deep catholic spirituality. Nobody ever thought that his inspiration should disqualify him as "education provider." He once poignantly wrote," My consciousness is an abyss that can only be filled by the Divine."

Such is my consciousness. The soul of many parents is the sanctuary of such an abyss. They would like to offer their children an education that understands this essential reality of their human experience. What does it say about a society that finds this threatening?

Notes: _ Catholic Native American Schools in Montana do not charge tuition.

_"How Washington created some of the worst schools in America" Maggie Severns, Politico.
_ The Complete Testimony of Matt Brower to the Montana Department of Revenue may be found in Montanacatholicschools.org , Newsletter of 11/09/15.
_ Patrick Beretta is part time chaplain to the Butte, MT, Central Catholic Schools