http://www.jsonline.com/news/metro/jun05/334084.asp is an article about Catholic schools in Milwalkee. Amy Welborne posted the link on her blog, but I'll comment on the article here. I live in suburban New Orleans. My civil parish (county) is divided by the Mississippi River. The eastbank, where I live, is basically white middle class white collar suburbia. The westbank is more mixed racially and more blue collar. On the eastbank over half the school-aged children are in non-public schools, primarily those run by the archdiocese. Of the group of about a dozen couples we were friends with at the time we had our first child, we are the only ones who have used the public schools, and the funny thing is, we have been very happy. Both my mildly autistic son and my artistically talented daughter have had their needs met; probably better than they would have been in the Catholic school down the street.
I'll admit I'm a big fan of the idea of public schools. I like the idea of all the kids in the area attending the same school, learning that people who are different from them, whether in race, income level, handicap or other category, can be good people and their friends. I'm sure its to some extent a chicken or egg thing, but it seems public schools are best in those areas where the majority of the community's children are in them, and the community supports the schools.
There is a bill before the Louisiana Legislature right now to allow children from failing schools to receive vouchers to attend private schools. The chief support for the bill is coming from the archdiocese,. Which claims it wants to make alternatives available. I do not support the bill. Why? Because I see it as more a way to pump up enrollment of inner-city Catholic schools than as a way to help a substantial number of children who are attending substandard schools. The archdiocese has said that no school would be forced to take voucher children and that it believes about 1200 slots are available for voucher children. While helping 1200 students is a noble goal, there is currently a program in place that would allow them to reach far more children, if helping the children rather than preserving the Catholic schools, was the goal. The state is looking for entities to take over failing public schools (the overwhelming majority of which are in inner-city New Orleans). The archdiocese runs one of the largest school systems in the state. Why has it not formed a related but not religious entity that could use the administrative expertise of the archdiocesean school system to run schools that do not promote religion? Could it be that they aren't likely to do substantially better than is being done right now when forced to take a school full of un-screened non-expellable students?
Also, what about the Catholic identity of the schools? Many of our inner city schools now have large non-Catholic populations. My guess is that many if not most of the voucher students would be non-Catholic. Is teaching Catholicism rather than generic morality important? How do you do that with a large non-Catholic population?
In my opinion, if the archdiocese really wants to serve the poor, it should form an affiliated corporation, plug into the expertise of the archdiocesean department of education, solicit donors and apply to run failed public schools. If it wants to preserve Catholic education in the inner city it should solicit donations to allow parishioners to use the parish school rather than getting involved in programs likely to bring a large number of non-Catholics into the school. Vouchers allowing any holder to attend a Catholic school help only the few who are able to both obtain the voucher and find a slot and may lead to the watering down or elimination of the Catholic identity of the school.