Catholic schools must be part of education policy debate

From the Deleware Online

By Cathy Weaver

As a public policy issue, education is a high-cost and a high-stakes venture. Race to the Top funds in Delaware are being used to implement common core standards, tie student test scores to teacher performance and initiate early childhood education.

Charter school applications abound, as everyone seems to have a particular perspective on how to improve student learning. Editorials in the press and online blogs present a plethora of ideas and potential solutions.

What's missing in all of this energy is awareness of and appreciation for the role of Catholic schools in educating students in Maryland and Delaware. Catholic schools
provide high- quality and high-standards learning. Students achieve well above the
national average on standardized tests.

Graduates of Catholic schools are leaders in business, government, education, industry and public service. These schools depend on the support of parishes to keep tuition affordable. Needy students often attend at reduced tuition rates; in every school in the Diocese, non-Catholics are welcome and enrolled.

The announced closing of 49 schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is very sad but not unexpected. The Diocese of Wilmington, too, has seen its share of closings and consolidations. Unfortunately, policies that are part of a strategy to improve public education, like advancing charter schools, are hurting Catholic schools.

Despite the desire of many families for a Catholic school education, increased
competition, changing demographics and a sour economy are presenting a challenge to us.

I invite our government and public policy makers to reflect upon the contributions of
Catholic schools to our community over the last 150 years. Over 10 percent of the
students in Delaware are educated in Catholic schools, saving the state at least $150 million annually in education costs. Is this not a valuable contribution worth fighting for and encouraging?

It is time to think about strategies and assistance that will enable Catholic schools to continue to serve for another 100 years.

If Delaware adopts a "money follows the person" strategy for school costs in the way that has been done in some cases for persons with disabilities and for housing, Delaware families could choose any school they wish, and their tax dollars could support their choice.

Business tax credits, professional development support, tuition tax credits and other creative plans are being advanced in other parts of our country and are making a difference in the funding and sustainability of Catholic schools. A small investment in the work of Catholic schools on the part of our businesses and our government will yield outstanding return in costs saved and in the education made available to students.

I appreciate those who advocate for a separation of church and state. But some
public policies and practices have advanced to the point where those with a
religious affiliation are denied recognition by government and business. In my
opinion, separation does not mean lack of recognition or partnership. In many cases,
Catholic schools cannot apply for grants, take advantage of professional
development, or participate in corporate initiatives because we are church-
sponsored, thereby diminishing the ability to serve. This is regardless of the fact that
we serve many communities and families and a diversity of religious beliefs.

I invite citizens and leaders to thoughtfully consider if there might not be ways to
recognize Catholic education with the understanding of the important benefit that
we bring to the state.

On a level playing field, Catholic schools offer outstanding educational opportunities
for citizens of Delaware. What I ask for is not a handout, but in fact, an acknowledgment of our partnership with public and private colleagues in educating
the next generation of young people for work, leadership and service. We stand
ready to work together in this important endeavor now and in the future.