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Catholic schools are a gift to share

January 21, 2018
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley

Each year, we set aside time to celebrate the unique value of Catholic schools during Catholic Schools Week. This year’s observance runs from Jan. 28 through Feb. 3 and will include local Masses, open houses and other activities for families, students, parishioners and community members.

During the year, I travel to every one of our Catholic schools for Mass and classroom visits, and try to schedule at least one visit during Catholic Schools Week. This year, the theme is “Catholic Schools: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.”

It is hard, if not impossible, to quantify the real value of Catholic schools. Suffice it to say that based on the average cost per pupil of public school education, Catholic schools save U.S. taxpayers more than $20 billion annually.

More importantly, however, Catholic schools are irreplaceable centers of evangelization. As communities of faith and learning they form disciples of Jesus Christ by proposing the Gospel and inviting a response.

The Catholic faith is woven integrally throughout the entire curriculum, both in the classroom, through worship and through service opportunities. Prayer not only is permitted, but promoted in our Catholic schools. As a result, studies show that Catholic school students are more likely to pray daily and retain a Catholic identity in adulthood.

Catholic school graduates are more likely to be civically engaged, volunteer, vote and be committed to service. Historically, Catholic schools have provided a tremendously effective environment for nurturing vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In short, there is really no substitute for the many contributions our Catholic schools make to Church and society. They are a treasure.

For years, the Catholic Church has affirmed the right and responsibility of parents to serve as the primary educators of their children. To assist parents in this sacred duty, the Church has taught that children have a right to an education in faith, and that the state has a fundamental obligation to enable such a right.

In its document on religious liberty, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that “The rights of parents are violated if their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions that are not in agreement with their religious beliefs, or if a single system of education, from which all religious formation is excluded, is imposed upon all.”

Many parents exercise their duty to educate their children in accord with their fundamental religious beliefs by choosing to send their children to Catholic schools, to parish religious education programs or through homeschooling. Sometimes the higher cost of parochial schools makes it difficult or even impossible for parents to choose Catholic schools for their children.

It is the responsibility of the whole Catholic community to strive to make Catholic education accessible and affordable to Catholic parents and children who desire it. Tuition assistance programs and other kinds of need-based scholarship assistance are important for the sustainability of our Catholic schools and their mission.

There also is a growing recognition beyond the Catholic Church of the importance of supporting parents’ educational choices for their children. The importance of parents’ rights to choose the kind of education that is best for their children has lead to a growing movement toward “parental choice” in education, that is, policies and programs that empower parents to make such choices.

Effective parental choice policies give parents the flexibility to choose the kind of school that meets the needs of their children either based on their religious convictions, the quality of education available in their public schools or the special needs of their children.

Parental choice programs are growing nationwide. They take the form of scholarship tax credit programs, voucher programs, special needs programs, individual income tax credits and education savings account programs.

For example, in Oklahoma, families are finding assistance in sending their children to Catholic schools either through the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program that allows children with special needs to enroll at Good Shepherd Catholic School at Mercy, or through the Catholic Schools Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which allows tax deductible contributions to be eligible for a state income tax credit so that need-based scholarships may be awarded for Catholic students to attend Catholic schools.

We have a treasure in our Catholic schools. It is a gift to share. But, it is our shared responsibility to explore innovative public/private initiatives and find effective ways to make the gift of Catholic education available to still more students and families.