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A Catholic voice for public schools

Forty-five years ago, America magazine published my final paper for the master’s degree I received from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. It reported on how the East Baton Rouge Parish, La., school system responded — with hesitation and tension — to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling that Southern school systems must desegregate “at once.”

The court’s implementation ruling of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ordered desegregation with “all deliberate speed.” The court clearly intended “speed.” The South interpreted “deliberate” as allowing it to go slow in dismantling dual systems. I looked at Baton Rouge, as a typical Southern district, to illuminate a fraught, yet critical, moment in public education in the South.

John Hohenberg, then the Pulitzer Prize administrator and the Columbia professor who supervised my final project, took the initiative in “shopping” my paper to magazines. America accepted it, and a few weeks later also published my follow-up report on Louisiana desegregation and Catholic schools.

Hohenberg, who died in 2000 at age 94, did me a great favor. Getting published in a respected magazine, at the outset of my career, gave me early credibility to do free-lance journalism for regional and national publications. I wish I had thanked him more in his retirement; still Hohenberg serves as a model I try to emulate in propelling students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I have also remained a loyal reader and regular subscriber to America, a weekly magazine published by the Jesuits of the United States. Founded in 1909, America reports and comments on the Catholic Church, as well as on national and international politics and on the U.S. economy, society, and culture.  

The research of James Coleman in the 1960s found that Catholic schools, rooted in family and community, showed the importance of “social capital,” offering examples from which public schools could learn.

Throughout the years that I have read America, it has persisted in supporting efforts to direct government assistance to parochial schools. Indeed, in the same June 20, 1970, issue that my first magazine article appeared, America had an editorial in favor of an experimental “voucher plan” proposed by the scholar Christopher Jencks.

Indeed, America has had evidence to draw on. The research of James Coleman in the 1960s found that Catholic schools, rooted in family and community, showed the importance of “social capital,” offering examples from which public schools could learn. It also could point to Catholic schools long devoted to education in high-poverty city neighborhoods.

Even now, the Jesuit-founded network of Cristo Rey high schools has attracted major business and philanthropic support. These schools accept only economically disadvantaged students, who are expected not only to master a high-quality, college-prep curricula but also to work five full days a month at allied businesses, nonprofits or universities. There are now 26 Cristo Rey schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

Given this context, America recently published a remarkable editorial on children and poverty – and the crucial educational and service roles played by public schools. America doesn’t back away from its support for some kind of financing for children in parochial schools, but the editorial goes on to explore society’s obligation to give public schools necessary resources.

“We expect a great deal from the nation’s public primary education system,” the editorial begins. “Though teachers are the frequent targets of some politicians – collateral damage in an undeclared war on public sector union membership – they accept each school day the challenge of preparing the next generation of Americans for productive and meaningful lives.”

The editorial goes on to cite familiar statistics on rising numbers of poor children in schools, and on disparities between schools in affluent and high-poverty communities. It does not mention, but it’s relevant here that enrollment in Catholic schools nationwide has declined from a peak of 5.2 million in the early 1960s to about 2 million today. More than 2,000 parochial schools have closed or been consolidated since 2000.

“Public schools have long since ceased to be places where children simply receive an education. As a consistent and dependable point of contact with children, they have become essential for assessing needs and distributing social services to children. Public schools deserve to have the resources that will allow them to successfully perform this double duty.”

America has long supported mechanisms that allow more children to tap into the special resource of this nation’s Catholic schools, often incubators of opportunity in high-poverty communities,” says the editorial, “but it recognizes that addressing deficits in public schools, where most Catholic children now receive their primary education, remains an essential obligation of a vibrant and just society. Public schools have long since ceased to be places where children simply receive an education. As a consistent and dependable point of contact with children, they have become essential for assessing needs and distributing social services to children. Public schools deserve to have the resources that will allow them to successfully perform this double duty.”

It goes without saying that America’s analysis has a special resonance in North Carolina as the state engages in a moment of critical debate over the future of public education. No doubt the state’s children will continue to be educated in some mix of traditional public, public-magnet, public-charter, private, and home schools – but the vast majority of North Carolina young people will continue to depend on public education to enhance their life’s mobility.

Today’s schoolchildren, the America editorial concludes, “have the right to expect the adult world to look out for them and provide them the best start in life possible – not because we all will someday depend on them, but because it is our God-given duty to them, one that should be borne with love and hope, not shouldered with resentment or indifference.”

 

Here’s a link to the full editorial: http://americamagazine.org/issue/among-schoolchildren

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.