This week is National School Choice Week, and while events around the country in support of this effort continue to grow, American schooling continues, in many ways, to become more and more centralized. The U.S. Department of Justice is still trying to deport homeschooling asylum-seekers, and to attack state-level school choice programs. Even the Fordham Institute, an organization which has been a supporter of school choice, recently published a report calling for private school students in voucher or tax credit programs to be required to take and score well on state-mandated tests. This was met with several clear-eyed responses about what would inevitably happen – once given control over private schools in this way, the state and federal governments will mold these private schools, over time, into clones of their traditional public counterparts. During National School Choice Week, schooling alternatives such as charter schools and virtual schools started by public districts or states will get a lot of attention, but there are entrepreneurial activities going on in with a specifically Catholic focus as well.
One well-known example is the network of Cristo Rey schools opening around the U.S. These are private Catholic schools which seek out students who would not otherwise be able to attend. Every student participates in a work study program, which helps pay tuition costs. A new Cristo Rey school is slated to open in Atlanta this fall, withy help from the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Its mission: to educate “young people from Atlanta of limited economic means to become men and women of faith, purpose and service. Through a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, integrated with a relevant work-study experience, students graduate ready to succeed in college and in life.”
Another group working to support strong academics and strong catechesis is Seton Partners, a nonprofit organization which has set up several afterschool centers in several cities, to provide catechesis many students would likely otherwise not receive because of their need to attend day care after school hours. A separate Seton Partners program, the Phaedrus Initiative, uses a blended learning model, incorporating online practice with face-to-face instruction, to help turn around low-performing urban Catholic schools. Seton Partners is experimenting with new models of policy and technology to save old, underenrolled urban catholic schools, as well as using new technologies to “develop a new, ‘break the mold’ approach to urban Catholic education, making it a competitive, viable, and thriving option for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”
On a very local level, St. John Bosco Academy, a school I work with outside Atlanta, operates as a private school/homeschool hybrid. Students attend classes, with other students, in a school building, either two or three days per week, depending on their grade level. The rest of the week, the students are homeschooled, following curriculum plans set up by their teachers, but actually taught and supervised by their parents. This arrangement supports the family serving as “the vital cell” of society, and the idea that rebuilding the culture to a civilization of love and life begins there (and at a much lower cost than traditional private schools).
The American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess, in his recent book Cage-Busting Leadership, argues that schools and school systems (and parents) have much more power to improve things than they give themselves credit for. Americans tend to accept existing, traditional schooling structures simply because they are used to them, or because they think they can only do what the law specifically says they can do. Despite any creeping centralization, there is still room for parents, teachers, and communities to resist it and to set up creative new structures for schooling in America, if they want to work together to take on the challenge.
Two of the examples above are from the state of Georgia. One of Georgia’s most famous Catholics, Flannery O’Connor provides wisdom on how to consider human institutions and culture in general: “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” Given the current state of schooling in America, that is certainly good advice. The Christo Rey network, Seton Partners, and schools like St. John Bosco Academy, all take large amounts of effort to set up and run. But all are examples of ways that Americans can use the institutions of civil society to preserve expressly Catholic educational options, and to do so in ways that provide excellent academic instruction and evangelize for the Church.