Sed Contra: Bishops Put Kids First!

Deal W. Hudson
October 1, 2000

Catholics who crave greater political involvement by their bishops should take note of Michigan’s seven bishops, led by Adam Cardinal Maida. Two years ago, they helped defeat a referendum legalizing euthanasia; now they are weighing in on the most important contest over school choice yet to arise in our nation. What happens to school choice in Michigan, like the presidential race itself, could have consequences that are no less than civilizational.

On November 7, Michigan residents will vote on a constitutional amendment to allow modest state support of students attending nonpublic schools. Michigan’s constitution presently bans “indirect support” of students attending private schools, a holdover from the days of explicit anti-Catholic bias in public education.

The constitutional amendment, known as Kids First!, will allow students who attend schools where the graduation rate is under two-thirds to receive vouchers equivalent to half of what the state spends per pupil, about $3,300. School districts themselves can adopt the program through school board action or public vote.

One way or the other, every school child in Michigan would receive substantial help in becoming something more than galley slaves for the dysfunctional educational establishment. On June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Michigan bishops issued the first of a three-part statement, entitled “A Just Beginning for All,” in support of the Kids First! amendment.

The bishops’ statement focuses attention not on the demands of teachers’ unions but on the plight of poor families. As long as public schools are doing their job, the bishops argue, the ability of wealthy families to send their children to private schools is not an injustice. With the breakdown of public education, children whose families cannot afford private schools are being left behind. “Since all future opportunities for successful employment depend on a solid educational foundation, should not all people have equal access to quality education?”

The proposal would affect 30 of Michigan’s 555 school districts, where two-thirds of the students fail to graduate from high school. Three hundred thousand kids will be set free from the control of union bureaucrats who put their power ahead of students’ well-being.

All Detroit’s public school students would become eligible. This should be good news since a two-year study by Harvard and Brookings of African-American urban students shows vouchers raise their test scores dramatically. But the “educrats” continue to fume about the loss of public funding and the separation of church and state.

The bishops’ statement makes clear that “tax-supported school choice does not violate the separation of church and state because the voucher is given to the parents and not to an organized religion.” It also reminds us that Catholic schools, rather than costing public schools, save states a great deal of money: Michigan alone is saved $570 million annually.

Kids First! doesn’t ignore the issue of improving public schools. It mandates testing teachers on their academic subjects. The last thing most teachers want is to be tested on what they are already supposed to know. But given the indifference of schools of education to intellectual content, as opposed to the idol of pedagogy, teacher testing is a necessary dose of castor oil.

In Detroit public schools, three of every four teachers recently hired are not certified. Only 34 percent of students in the seventh grade can read at a satisfactory level, and only 36 percent can score a “C” in math. Only one of every three children entering the ninth grade will graduate. Yet the state’s total per-pupil education spending tripled in the last ten years, from $3.1 billion to $11 billion.

Dick DeVos, president of the Amway Corporation and co-chair of the Kids First! Yes! Coalition!, recently spoke to the Economic Club of Detroit: “Our current situation is not `a problem.’ Our current situation is not ‘a dilemma.’ Our current situation is not even ‘a crisis.’ Our current situation is disgraceful.”

We pray that the coalition of Michigan’s Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims, Lutherans, African-Americans, and business leaders will make real education available to all children.

Credit should go to Michigan’s bishops. One can only imagine the changes in our society if this kind of political determination caught on in other dioceses!

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