Why ‘classical’ charter schools can’t replace Catholic education

Catholic education, if faithful to its mission, is in a unique and powerful position to serve our youth and lead them to fulfilling lives of joy and meaning. Secular schools will always fall short.

A fourth-grader raises her hand to answer a question at Christ the King School in Irondequoit, N.Y., in this 2011 photo. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)

As principal of a “classical” Catholic school and a lifelong advocate for the liberal arts, I am excited by the growing classical school movement—which now has reached even many public charter schools. Catholic families are understandably attracted to charter schools’ free tuition and classical schools’ commitment to established curricula, teaching methods and virtue development. But a secular school can never be a worthy substitute for authentic Catholic education and some parents seem to be either unaware or unconvinced of the Church’s reasons for requiring them to choose Catholic education if it is available.

To be sure, anything that increases educational options—especially for low-income families who may be trapped in the public system—is good for society. And a classical education that teaches students to reason, integrates knowledge, and immerses them in good literature, history and other liberal studies is a marked improvement in public schools.

But for families who have access to a Catholic school that takes the Faith seriously or for whom homeschooling is an option a faithful and flourishing Catholic education is an unmatched opportunity. Even a secular classical education just doesn’t compare.

Fullness of truth

Catholic schools teach more than public schools, including classical charter schools, and more than any secular private school. It’s not that Catholic schools necessarily teach more math and more reading—it’s often but not always the case—but more importantly, they teach about the human person and the beauty and meaning of everything around us. The horizons are set higher and the insights run deeper, because seriously Catholic schools both ascend and delve into transcendent truths about humanity, meaning, and the universe—just as God made them. De facto, all schools form students, and students only come in one way: with minds, bodies and souls intimately united. But even the best public schools are not able to get to matters of the heart and soul with the love and guidance of the God who made those bodies, hearts and souls. Catholic schools can teach more and do more because they can properly situate not only human inquiry, but also the human formation within their full and glorious potentialities.

Catholic education is uniquely able to explore and transmit truths about humanity and the nature and meaning of reality. Since these truths come from God, the source of all reality and truth, leaving Him out necessarily diminishes any such inquiry and leaves meaning-making deficient. If it is true that “in Christ we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then we cannot adequately teach our students to apprehend reality and to live and move and be in this world without reference to Him as the source of all reality and truth. Because Catholic schools have an intimate relationship with Christ—who is the Logos, who is Truth—they are uniquely equipped to lead students to the fullness of truth. If truths are cut off from their divine source, they are no more than shadows, according to Pope Pius XII.

This is why all public schools, and even public classical schools which explicitly seek to expose students to the true, good and beautiful, are insufficient. Leaving kids in the shadow of truth risks leaving them exposed to error, pride or skepticism.

We were not made to stand in the vestibule of truth; we were made to embrace truth and proclaim it once found. Additionally, a natural human response to the wonder of truth, beauty and goodness when it is discovered is awe and praise, contemplation and worship, humility and thanksgiving. Because Catholic school teachers and students can engage in these natural responses as a group, openly and honestly, the likelihood of their occurrence is increased, and the power of their impact is magnified. To overcome the ennui and jadedness of the modern age, we need in all ways possible to activate the power and glory of authentic discovery, which is vivified and amplified by the divine.

Faith across the curriculum

There is additional value in training our students how to include things beyond the material when training them in the process of inquiry. Not all truths are easily subjected to standardized tests. Not everything that can be known can be physically measured and weighed. Indeed the most weighty things are without weight: justice, freedom, meaning, human dignity and reason are but a few immeasurable realities that benefit from divine perspective and guidance.

The habit of leaving God out of inquiry can become ingrained if practiced year in and out throughout a child’s academic development. Pope Leo XIII counsels that science, literature, history and other disciplines must be permeated with religion because, “If it is otherwise, if this sacred inspiration does not penetrate the spirits of the teachers and of the students, the instruction will produce only little fruit and will often even have seriously harmful consequences.” We cannot leave God out of the bulk of our children’s intellectual formation without consequence. St. John Paul II puts it more poetically and positively when he says:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

If leaving Christ out of secular academic instruction is problematic, it is even more dangerous to leave Him out of character formation and morality. A laudable but limited practice at some public and private schools is to offer a secular version of Catholic faith-based character formation programs. By design, these schools are limited to using human will and man-made standards to attempt to inspire students. Typically, a self-selected list of virtues is introduced and then highlighted in literature, lived example and morning character development sessions. Such communal gatherings and focus may be helpful, but they lack the power and potentiality of instilling human excellences modeled on the most excellent human, Christ, and calling on the direct, real and real-time assistance of His grace through prayer and sacrament. Perfect men cannot be raised without the model and grace of THE perfect man.

Pope Leo XIII minces no words in stating that “to be desirous that minds should be imbued with good and at the same time to leave them without religion is as senseless as to invite people to virtue after having taken away the foundations on which it rests.” He warns that civic morality cannot guide man to the supreme end destined for him, and sounds this warning:

No one should be ready to believe that instruction and piety can be separated with impunity. In effect, if it is true that We cannot exempt ourselves from the duty of religion at any period of life, in private or public affairs, so much the less should this duty be omitted at any age which is thoughtless, in which the spirit is ardent and exposed to so many inducements to evil. To organize teaching in such a way as to remove it from all contact with religion is therefore to corrupt the very seeds of beauty and honor in the soul. It is to prepare, not defenders of the nation, but a plague and a scourge for the human race. Once God is suppressed, what can keep young people dutiful or recall them when they have strayed from the path of virtue and fall into the abyss of vice?

These are not questions to ignore, and they lead Pope Leo to teach: “it is necessary to avoid at all costs, as most dangerous, those schools in which all beliefs are welcomed and treated as equal, as if, in what regards God and divine things, it makes no difference whether one believes rightly or wrongly, and takes up with truth or error.” The lack of the supernatural does not simply leave a hole in education that can presumably be filled later, like a missing homework assignment. The hole which keeps man from being whole can only filled by the God who made him. Our children need to encounter the all-fulfilling God in all things.

Spiritual witness

The surest way to develop human excellence is when it is modeled at the point of delivery in the school and explicitly lived out by adult witnesses free to draw upon a wealth of unfiltered resources and direct personal and communal faith. The most effective teachers are those who demonstrate a passion for what they are teaching and effectively model the skills and dispositions they seek to instill in their students. The teacher must present the material or concepts to the students, modeling and at times proposing value and meaning relevant to the subject at hand from a Catholic worldview. Teachers are not neutral in this process, in that their role is to model and invite. However, they must still respect their students’ freedom and will. They assist students to explore and ultimately to determine for themselves the truthfulness and “workability” of the claims and worldview presented in the Catholic school.

By contrast, public school and secular private school teachers are not allowed to provide this level of spiritual witness. It is not that Catholics who are public school educators are inauthentic; it’s that they are prevented from revealing the full depth of human and spiritual insight they have discovered as committed people of faith. They cannot bring to consummation the fullness of their insights about the beauty and meaning of the world around them before their students. These are not small losses in the teacher-student relationship. These are real losses in maximizing the power of the educational experience and complete formation in a time of incredible danger from a culture of crassness and despair.

The strategy of simply reading great books to combat this crisis is also insufficient. There have been plenty of people, good and evil, who have read the same great texts through the years with differing results. Reading them does not of itself confer virtue or wisdom. Under the guidance of a master Catholic educator, they can indeed be instruments to raise questions and concerns about ultimate nature and meaning of things. The issue is: What answers will be given to these questions? Who will provide those answers convincingly? In a government-run charters where teachers are unable to share their faith-based convictions, input devolves to the random gathering of students present in the class and their grasp of a text they may or may not have read. Crowd sourcing religious truths to students is not an efficient or sure means to the truth of things.

A related concern is that children often tend to follow the culture of their peers and the common culture more than the culture of their parents. A Catholic culture modeled only at home is especially subject to these powerful forces. A deliberate and thoughtful series of relationships must also be encouraged and guided by other caring Catholic adults who complement the home values. This can provide and model a complete approach to Christian human flourishing in a broader, more forceful context. A strong and unified community is necessary to sufficiently arm and prepare the current generation to meet the potentially overwhelming challenges facing it.

Superior formation

The good news that is that Catholic education, if faithful to its mission, is in a unique and powerful position to serve our youth and lead them to fulfilling lives of joy and meaning. Secular schools will always fall short.

The Church understands the challenges facing modern man better than any other entity, and it has both the keys and access to the necessary graces to meet those challenges head-on. Its homes and schools can provide for the integration of culture, faith and life and best equip students to attain and practice heroic virtue in a troubled world.

Catholic education which faithfully fulfills this function is a cause worthy of the Church. It is a choice worthy of Catholic parents. And if the choice is a real option, it is a duty we owe our children.


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About Dr. Daniel Guernsey 1 Article
Dr. Daniel Guernsey is the Director of K-12 Programs for The Cardinal Newman Society and a principal of a Classical Catholic school in Ave Maria, Florida.

47 Comments

  1. “[S]ome parents seem to be either unaware or unconvinced of the Church’s reasons for requiring them to choose Catholic education if it is available.” You can’t be serious. There are Catholic schools available where I live. They are prohibitively expensive, and having taught at one of them myself, I see little evidence that they are anything more than Catholic in name only. My children have attended a non-denominational Christian school, at 1/3 the cost of the Catholic schools, and it has been an excellent soil for the growth of their faith. I think Catholic parents are well aware of their obligations. It is the Church that has forgotten its mission, in education as elsewhere.

    • I couldn’t agree more. The “Catholic” schools in our area are nothing but expensive private schools. The faith is secondary there. Knowing many children that attend them, and their ignorance of the Catholic Faith, is all I need to see to believe that they are more damaging than good.
      The secular charter classical school in our area is staffed by a majority of Thomas Aquinas college graduates. A better choice.

    • I also agree with Timothy. Two of my children each attended one year at our local Catholic schools. Traditional faith and catechism were not taught. When my son gave correct answers regarding the catechism, learned at home, the priest accused him, in front of the class, of cheating and looking at the priest’s answer notes. The schools were more in the business of teaching “social justice,” which equated to socialism and communism. The tuition cost was a trial for our family and our son learned nothing new, in math or reading, that year.
      Our daughter’s school also put on a play, wherein two male students were forced to kiss because the characters were homosexual.

      We tried two different Catholic schools, but I have not gone back and stick now to homeschooling. I, also, recommended protestant schools to another Catholic, homeschooling mom who was considering sending two of her children for a year or two (homeschool moms need a break once in awhile). The protestant area schools are doing well academically and are still Christian.

      The Catholic church needs to return to a traditional model if they hope to prepare true, faithful, Catholic, youth preparation.

      • ” The schools were more in the business of teaching “social justice,” which equated to socialism and communism.”

        The left wing Catholics believe that *is* Catholicism. There are disagreements of what is, and what is not, Catholic.

        What we can agree on is that the Catholic schools being prohibitively expensive keeps people out.

    • The charter school our kids attend is more ‘Catholic’ that the Catholic schools. Uniforms, real discipline and well-paid Catholic teachers who are serious educators. One reason is that they are marketed to non-Catholics to stay afloat and the teachers are not all vetted Catholics. In our case, we could never afford the tuition due to family size and I’m not willing to bury a Catholic school with scholarships, which happens. The financial model is not working here. It’s unfortunate.

    • I think Guernsey states “if there is one available” regarding Catholic schools. Many times such schools are Catholic in name only, and, of course, prohibitively expensive. I know of some schools that teach outright contradictions to the Faith. I think this would fit in the exception.

      Other than that, this is a great article. Govt schools teach atheistic Darwinian evolution where creation and existence is by chance. After malforming children into a world of pure chance and no purpose, the govt schools try to teach positive self-esteem. It is impossible.

    • It really offends me to hear of trained Catholic teachers who send their kids to a “nondenominational” school because Catholic school tuition is too high. What exactly are you doing during the day which is more important than your kids’ education? And there is no such thing as nondenominational history. The Catholic Textbook Project is dedicated to providing texts of Catholic truth for history class. The Institute for Classical Liberal Education is dedicated to transforming our Catholic schools into real Catholic AND Classical models. After all, Saint Augustine before his conversion was a master Rhetoric teacher. We can thank him for bringing together the faith tradition with the centuries-old experience of the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Parents are abandoning their faith and parental responsibilities if they feel they need a place to drop the kids off every day, and so “nondenominational” will do okay for that purpose. Nondenominational history does not exist. Just ask Henry VIII. And it is the Catholic Church which has that history, despite all evidence to the contrary in its diocesan schools. Stand up and demand that our Catholic schools fully live up to that tradition.

      • Well, you would be highly “offended” by our school, where 45% of the students and some of the teachers are Catholic. Gosh, we never thought of demanding that our Catholic schools return to Catholic education. But I’ll be sure to pass along your concerns to our bishop. I am sure he will immediately adopt your classical curriculum.

        • Please stop complaining about catholic schools and sending your children to “interfaith” schools and start your own school!

          Your children deserve better, the Church deserves better.

  2. Unfortunately, the lofty (and praiseworthy!) ideals presented in Dr. Guernsey’s essay do not comport with the statistics–or my own experience as an educator in both Catholic and public teaching institutions.
    Several years ago, a Cardus Educational study, conducted in conjunction with Notre Dame, surveyed almost 2500 high school grads between the ages of 24-39, resulting in some sobering data when comparing Catholic, Protestant and public school outcomes: “Protestant Christian schools play a vital role in the long-term faith of their students, while Catholic schools seem to be largely irrelevant, sometimes even counterproductive to the development of their students’ faith.” And this: “Protestant school graduates showed a significant increase in financial giving—both to their churches and to other religious groups—when compared to public schooled students, but all other forms of private school [including Catholic ones] showed a net decrease in giving.” In addition, institutional Protestant and religious home-schooled grads displayed a net increase of attendance at religious services; Catholic and (non-religious) private school grads displayed a decrease in attendance.”
    So…what do Protestants (mostly Lutherans and evangelicals) know that we don’t and what can be done to address the now decades-long crisis Catholic secondary (and, for that matter, collegiate) education?

    • I think it has to do with the audiences of various Evangelical Protestant Schools. Some of them *only* accept people certified by their pastors, as in only religious Protestant Christians are let in, and many are created for the purposes of spreading/affirming religion, regardless of educational quality.

      Many Catholic schools on the other hand are made to educate first and foremost, and while religion is taught, there are groups like Jesuits known for making education more of an emphasis. People of non-Catholic backgrounds who have no interest in converting historically flocked to those schools.

  3. Dr. Guernsey’s article is a welcome contribution to the discussion regarding the classical education renewal movement. I have been studying this movement in its secular, non-Catholic Christian, and Catholic varieties for some years, and I have discovered deficiencies such as those described here and others that unfortunately are implicit in the article itself.

    A careful reading of Bl. Newman’s commentary on education as well as research on pre-Vatican II Catholic education is highly instructive. Cd. Newman affirms that a
    liberal education produces not the virtuous man but rather, the “gentleman.” He further stipulates that the purpose of education is to train the intellect; it is not to involve itself with shaping the “whole child.” The intellect is trained by learning the concrete facts of the world into which we have been born — and those of the world before we were born, notably those of ancient Greece and Rome. (An exception would be the important mental exertion expended in grappling with the abstractions of mathematics. Similarly, mastering the classical languages.) In a vigorous process of accumulation, consideration, sifting, categorizing, inferring, deducing, synthesizing and generalizing, as well as the experience that only living life can bring, the cultivated, mature mind comes to an informed “worldview.” For the Catholic, that worldview is saturated by his Faith. But the facts are not derogated or subordinated to the worldview. They are respected within their own sphere.

    The terms wonder, virtue, wisdom, truth, beauty, and goodness never appear when Bl. Newman is discussing education, certainly not the education of the child. Nor is the concept of the “whole child” even suggested. The notion of education sculpting a “work of art” in the child was a modern development, perhaps introduced by Thomas Arnold, the famed headmaster of Rugby, and a liberal non-Catholic Protestant. John Dewey, the father of progressive education, ran with this notion and turned it into “educating the whole child.” Bl. Newman, by contrast, confined his goal of perfection to academics, the arena of the mind.

    Descriptions of Catholic education before Vatican II reveal the divide I have described here. The earlier form of education concentrated on producing a vigorous and well-stocked mind while ordering everything to the knowledge, love and service of Our Lord and the Faith he bequeathed to his Church. Character education meant living out the precepts of the Faith. The vision of such schools was not inward-looking, preoccupied with the “soulcraft” of the student, but rather outward (or upward), to the love of God. If this latter was done effectively, the soulcraft followed as an automatic corollary.

    Dr. Guernsey notes that teachers, while guiding students, must respect their freedom and will. I am glad to hear it. A perusal of the Catholic Curriculum Standards released in recent years manifests, in my view, an alarming tendency to manipulate the student into posturing prescribed virtues, the demonstration of approved “dispositions” to be closely monitored and recorded by the teacher, by stealth if necessary.

    Cd. Newman’s motto was “Cor ad cor loquitur.” His was a profoundly tender character which cherished friendship as well as the non-intellectual joys of aesthetic expression. Nevertheless, his understanding of education was fully “classical,” rather than romantic. It was not a sentimental education. I am inclined to think that this approach is better calculated to produce Christian soldiers of heroic virtue which I believe, like Dr. Guernsey, should be the ultimate aim of a Catholic education.

  4. I read Dr. Guernsey’s comment, “Catholic education if it is available,” to infer that parents have discretion to judge whether local Catholic schools are sufficiently Catholic to merit the name and therefore to enable parents to fulfill their obligations under the Church’s instructions.

  5. Not to create an echo chamber of confirming belief, yet the more voices sharing the true scope of the problem might uncover a heretofore unexplored solution, thus I too share the comments here. We weep for a truly Catholic education for our children in a “truly” Catholic school, but alas, not to be found in our area as they are in “name” Catholic only. The “Catholic” schools adhere to state common-core standards (a “race to the bottom”), and modern cultural/political fashions (Christophobic suicide)–so a common “education” to be had at a public school with a better ROI for our taxes.
    At least for my family, for the time being we have found a less perfect solution, a Christian Classical School, which though incomplete in its exposition of the Faith (a parent’s duty in any case) is a welcome font of Christ-centered, classical (Latin, AND Greek!) education (even St. Thomas Aquinas is read for dialectic exposure!). The kids read the classics in light of biblical, though not Magisterial, truth–an easier problem to correct and complete than the so-called Catholic, nay, dare I say, secular post-modern, teaching in the Catholic schools (easier to talk to a liturgist than a “Catholic” school administrator/diocesan official today).
    I had the opportunity to become a principal at a new Classical Charter school, but without the light of Catholic teaching and faith, the kids’ natural questions following the literature they read would lead them to, I could not answer them with the truth of Catholic teaching. After Pope Benedict’s “Regensburg Lecture” it seems the Catholic Church has put Christ’s light under a basket once again. As an aside, is there any wonder the crises in our seminaries, religious houses, and in the pulpits, given this generation in charge opposed the Truth of Catholic teaching and tradition.
    Let us pray for one another and persevere in our faith for our salvation and that of our children!

  6. We have several ‘Math and Science’ charter schools (unrestricted taxpayers $$$) in our city. I know a young smart minority lady who was treated as substandard and her grades declined. She went back to a public high school and thrived. The FBI investigated these schools. Nothing.

    Here’s an interesting article: https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/the-secretive-turkish-religious-movement-tied-to-arizona-charter-schools-11074828

    Catholic schools are the best education possible. Bless you for a great article and comments!

  7. Dr. Guernsey’s essay is truly “praiseworthy” and “lofty”.
    Our experience with Catholic schools was disheartening and tragic. Our kids attended a Jesuit Hight school in S.F. AND our children were told by a Jesuit Priest that they did not need to attend Mass on Sundays. Campus Ministry did not want to offend students by referring to God as Our Father. I could site many examples. I was heart broken that they did not develop a love for scripture or Liturgy. I could go on and on.
    Catholic education, in my opinion, has been hijacked by those who want cheap private education. In my opinion, Abortion and homosexual marriage as laws reflect the failure of Catholic education, and the Institutional Church as well. Some religious orders and Bishops are to busy promoting social justice vs. saving souls.

    • You are absolutely right! Too many Catholic schools are willing to sell their souls in order not to offend any other religion or any atheists! They seem to think that if they strip Catholicism of all its traditions and doctrines, then people will stop leaving the church. But people leave the church because it fails to fulfill the needs of their souls, without the traditions, rituals and doctrines, the church has no soul, and it loses the distinction of being the church that Jesus ordered Peter to build.

  8. Catholic education needs to return to single sex education at the secondary level (and middle school level), if not earlier, in order to take sex differences into account, and reject the false egalitarianism that was accepted in the last century.

  9. Charter schools are free. Catholic schools are prohibitively expensive. I taught in Catholic high schools for over twenty years, and the schools did not foster Catholic faith; they contradicted the faith, especially in religion classes. Why pay close to $20,000 per year for that when you can get a comparable or better education in secular subjects for free at a charter school and send your children to faith formation at a parish for $100 per year or less? If you ask me, Catholic schools are economically unsustainable. Many that are flourishing are doing so because they offer a private education with hardly any Catholicism and they attract non-Catholic students for the private education, not for the Catholic-lite.

  10. If the bishops wanted schools for Catholic children, they would make that happen. They certainly have enough money for pointless redecorations, new office buildings, and travel. Our bishop doesn’t even visit outlying parishes for Confirmation.

  11. As noted by others, I see a particular problem here. We can all agree that a truly faithful Catholic education will always be best. Sadly, too many lack access to such an education. If you have a choice between lousy Catholic school and a vigouus–though secular–classical school, you may be best advised to seek the latter. We need our bishops and Catholic teachers and administrators to get on the ball more widely. …And inexpensively.

  12. I applaud the Cardinal Newman Society for addressing Catholic education at the K-12 level, because it’s in bad shape from what I can tell–at least in my area, which is otherwise a strong diocese. I do not disagree with much of Dr. Guernsey’s article, except to say that, sadly, Catholics wouldn’t be homeschooling their kids in such great numbers or sending their kids to charter schools except out of despair at the high cost and poor quality of so many Catholic schools.

    I have four children, all of whom were once at a Catholic school–we tried three different ones in the area, actually, in addition to a sort of university model Catholic homeschooling coop. All of our kids are now at a classical charter school. We are highly confident that they are in a much better environment at the charter school, sad as I am to say that. And my kids know it too. They have friends at the closest Catholic high school, and we are close with families whose kids are there, and the culture there is not great. One young man there told me that the other kids make fun of him for going to Eucharistic adoration–he is the oldest kid in one of the strongest Catholic families I know, and they ended up moving most of their other kids to the charter school, as it’s just a much better school, and a culture that actually seems much more respectful of faith and religious practice.

    Many Catholic schools seem to suffer from several problems. First, the members of the theology faculty at the two local Catholic high schools in our area are not very serious, and the schools just don’t seem to be very demanding in terms of the quality and level of education of the teachers. Some are great, but that seems to be luck, rather than a requirement. I was talking with the head of the theology department at one school, and she said she was quite sure that none of the teachers at the school whose job it is to teach Catholic doctrine would ever even think of reading Papal Encyclicals when issued.

    I would love to have my kids learn about the history and philosophy and art of the Catholic tradition and the substance of Catholic doctrine at a Catholic school, but I find that I would need to teach that myself anyway, as I don’t have confidence in the folks at the local Catholic schools to do that teaching with a high degree of competence and enthusiasm.

    At my kids’s charter school they have teachers from Christendom College, the University of Dallas, and Thomas Aquinas College, for example. The principal studied philosophy at the University of Dallas, and then get her PhD in philosophy at a respected graduate school. Neither the principal nor the president of the closest Catholic high school has any Catholic higher education at all in their background. They have teaching degrees from state schools. If they are schooled in the great richness of the Catholic tradition, it isn’t apparent from their CVs. Like Mr. Guernsey himself, their attitude toward education is learned from public schools, and was taught at those public schools for teaching at K-12 public schools. I’ll take a teacher with a B.A. from Thomas Aquinas College or Christendom to teach my kids over any PhD from a public university. (I cannot understand why the local Catholic school isn’t trying to lure these great Catholic teachers away from my kids’ charter school.)

    Second, when they do teach any Catholic doctrine, too often the Catholic schools dumb it down far too much. So, kids leave with mushy doctrine that doesn’t stand up to mature scrutiny, and then naturally when the kids’ brains mature in their 20s, they end up thinking all of the Catholic rules are silly. That’s because they don’t have any foundation. We should make high school kids read the teaching of the doctors of the Church, and lots of it. If they don’t understand 100% of it, that’s fine–at least they will know there is substance there to be revisited sometime. Instead, most of the teachers don’t even read Thomas Aquinas or Therese of Liseaux, so of course the kids graduate thinking that Catholicism is a bunch of baseless rules, not a rich tradition to be explored for life.

    Third, the schools seem so strapped for cash, or even if they’re flush they are so focused on raising more funds, that they rarely kick out problem kids, and they often admit kids who shouldn’t be there in the first place. I get it that a Catholic school needs to be open to all types of kids, but there should still be strict requirements for behavior. Too many parents seem to think they can have a terrible home life and a problematic relationship with their kids, but if they dump them in a Catholic school, they’ve met their responsibility, as the school will straighten out the kids. I have seen too many instances where Catholic schools have put up with bullying and terrible behavior for far too long–either they couldn’t stand the thought of losing the tuition, or they didn’t want to be tough with the kid and the parents (and donors), but as a result the whole school suffered.

    Finally–and this may be my biggest problem–the Catholic schools are much to focused on prestige and “success” (in worldly terms) and advancement and college. The principal of my kids’ charter school said at an introductory talk that the school did not care about getting kids into college, though they would get in just fine–but that wasn’t the school’s mission or its understanding of the purpose of education. Rather, the purpose of education, she said, was to acquaint the student’s soul with the good, the true and the beautiful, which leads to human flourishing–education was not about getting a job, but was good for its own sake in leading kids to lead virtuous lives, which is essential to human happiness. I was astonished. As simple and basic as those truths are, I don’t hear the leadership in Catholic schools talking that way. Instead, they seem much more likely to talk about how many of their graduates get admitted to Notre Dame-which, by the way, has that same obsession with money and success in spades. (And I say that in sadness, not in scorn, as I am an ND grad myself.)

    So, sadly, when Dr. Guernsey writes, “Catholic schools teach more than public schools, including classical charter schools, and more than any secular private school. . . . [T]hey teach about the human person and the beauty and meaning of everything around us.” I hope most do. Sadly, if the schools in our area are any indication, too many Catholic schools spend much more energy teaching AP calculus to get the kids into a prestigious college. (I get it that such an approach is what most parents seem to want these days, but I think the Catholic schools need to do a little better job of resisting that.)

  13. Excellent article! Speaking as the mother of a special needs child (autistic) – and as a mother who deeply values a Catholic education – may I suggest that this education is not fully Catholic when special needs students are not included. Inclusive Catholic schools reap marvelous fruits for both their special needs and their “typical” students. All students learn in a truly concrete way the dignity of each human person, this whole person body and soul that this article mentions, servant leadership, and the teachings of our Church about the human person when a school has an inclusive model.

    • Ruth, you are right on the money. I teach at a Catholic, classical, and inclusive school. The difference is astounding. Our students love and care for one another in a way I have never experienced anywhere else. Through their lived experience they know the value of each human life.

  14. To those commenting previously about negative experiences with Catholic schools: What did you do about it??
    You have an obligation to change things for the better when they are not right. If the school will not respond, you have the obligation to report the matter to the bishop. I understand that you may not be successful, but if you haven’t seriously made the attempt, then you’re part of the problem. “For evil to triumph, all that’s neede is for good men to do nothing.”
    THere are many good Catholic schools that are faithfully teaching the Faith along with great academics, including the one in my parish. My grandchildren in another diocese have had the good fortune to experience an excellent Parish Grade
    school and a top notch, faithfully Catholic high school, that have deepened their faith and readied them for admission to and thriving in highly ranked colleges, but ready to swim against the current when needed. Their parents did have to ride herd on the grade school teachers and principal on the occasional shortcoming or even crazy plans, but it paid off. Our diocesan High svhoolis probably more faithfully Catholic than the 4 other Catholic High schools in our city.

    • I’m glad the complaining to catholic teachers worked for you and your grandkids! We tried for years and we’re treated like crap! When we suggested better classical curriculum we were told, “we have elementary Ed degrees, not you!” Then my husband got on the school board hoping for change. No. Parents cried, “I went to school here and I turned out just fine!” After several years we removed our kids from the school and are homeschooling. But that’s hard and NOT ideal!
      Now, we have a Hillsdale Barney Charter Classical School opening in our town!! They are amazing!!! I am beyond excited and blessed that a Hillsdale charter school Is opening near us! Sick of paying tuition for mediocre curriculum and tired of homeschooling!!
      Here’s a video describing Hillsdale classical charter schools. These schools will help transform America and finally we get some use out of tax dollars!!! 🙂
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=s5eKDcTdzCY

  15. When it comes to Catholic schools one cannot assume it will teach the faith adequately. There should be a rating system; I thought Newman Society had a system for identifying Catholic High Schools that were faithful to Catholic teaching.
    Regarding cost it seems the tuition for Catholic grade schools are more reasonable. The tuition for Catholic high school is definitely high. People who lament this should remember this is the price paid for the almost elimination vocations for sisters teaching in Catholic schools. There should be an article covering how Catholic schools can be improved in its approach to fostering the understanding of Catholic teaching and reducing cost.
    For a success story, suggest looking up the Sacred Heart school in Grand Rapids Michigan. Not sure their approach is applicable every where but it is interesting. Also there is the growth in vocations of the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist who represent a resurgence of sisters in the classroom. Suggest we all pray for vocations for faithful priests and sisters since in the end that is what we need.

  16. I am more concerned with my tax money being used for Charter schools when there is no accountability for their curriculum and teaching methods.

    When I was raising my 2 sons the cost of tuition at St John Coleman was out of our budget. My sons graduated with honors in Kingston High and likewise in college. I am perhaps more concerned with the Catholic school closings. Cardinal Dolan had to close my wife’s grade school where many of her family went because of low attendance. That was 10 years ago and the buildings are still vacant.

    Perhaps the church should rejuvenate parochial schools by staffing them with Nuns and not expensive lay teachers.

    • Morgan, the problem is that there has been a 72% drop in the number of nuns in the last 50 years – 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014. The schools can’t be staffed with nuns because there aren’t enough nuns.

  17. There are many ways a person learns the Faith. My parents, both educated in the public schools, were in every way exemplary Catholics. Granted, their education was at a time when schools were not secularized in the manner they are today. The schools provided them with the basics in education. The home and the church provided them with the formation in the true Faith.

    I know parents who have had their children in charter schools with a classical curriculum. They are there to learn, to think, to read and so on. The education in the Faith takes place in the home and the parish.

  18. Just adding to all that has been written above, in the average diocese, the schools are – sadly – a joke (i.e. – not at all worthy of the misnomer “Catholic”). I have long ago referred to such schools as “diocesan schools”, as they are no longer “Catholic”. What passes for “catechesis” is woefully deficient, just for starters. For years now, diocesan schools usually lag only a couple of years behind the public schools, in adopting practices, ideologies, etc. that help put their students on the path to hell, to be honest. Often-pornographic classroom sex education began in public schools, and was adopted (and is tragically the norm now) by diocesan schools after a few years time. The same goes for pro-sodomy ideologies, de-emphases on divinely-intended differences between the sexes, initiative-destroying essentially socialist “common core” curricula, etc., etc., etc. Meanwhile, if one looks around, probably most larger metropolitan areas will be blessed with a small, usually struggling, authentically Catholic school – often times having been started by sincere Catholic parents, who have been concerned with the salvation of their children’s souls. Not all truly-committed Catholic parents can home school, and such schools continue the time-honored structure of classroom education, with a social environment, accountability to school norms (punctuality, discipline, etc.). The catechetical text of timeless value may be the Baltimore Catechism, and the school may have adopted a Classical Curriculum – and very likely will not have the “blessing” of the diocese, as they don’t fit a politically-correct, “contemporary” ideology, as espoused by the “progressive” powers-that-be of the given diocese. Only one example is Mater Dei Academy, in Columbus, Ohio – but sadly, the number of sincere Catholic parents are few, and so such schools have great difficulty in staying open – but represent a true “Remnant”.

  19. I have taught in Catholic schools my entire carreer, in three separate dioceses. I understand that many (actually, more likely the majority) are “Catholic in Name Only.” However, there are a few really good, faithful, authentically Catholic schools. Out of the seven schools where I have taught, two offered daily Mass for the students. And of those two, only one required the faculty to be practicing Catholics in good standing. Additionally, as a part of the interviewing process, applicants completed a religious knowlege survey. That way, the administrators knew if they needed to fill in any gaps in religious knowledge before hiring a teacher. As a result, there were applicants who (whether hired or not) were moved to reconcile an irregular marriage, return to the sacraments, or perhaps just commit to reading the Catechism. The school is far from perfect, but it is in a constant process of self-evaluation and a committment to improve each year.

  20. As a colleague with Dr. Guernsey and a lifelong advocate for the renewal of FAITHFUL Catholic education (as president of The Cardinal Newman Society), I am grateful for the many comments lamenting the state of many Catholic schools but also concerned that readers have disregarded Dr. Guernsey’s qualified advocacy for “faithful” Catholic schools — not lukewarm or poor-quality schools, of which Dr. Guernsey and I are well aware and frequently lament.

    Dr. Guernsey’s thesis statement (emphasis added):

    “But for families who have access to a Catholic school THAT TAKES THE FAITH SERIOUSLY or for whom homeschooling is an option, A FAITHFUL AND FOURISHING CATHOLIC EDUCATION is an unmatched opportunity. Even a secular classical education just doesn’t compare.”

    In hindsight, this might have been emphasized even more strongly, but the Newman Society already devotes enormous efforts to making clear distinctions between faithful, excellent Catholic education and the failures of many other Catholic schools over the past few decades. So here Dr. Guernsey focused on the matter of secular schools, yet not without qualifying his advocacy for Catholic schools that do it right.

    A number of the comments have pointed out two obvious problems with much of contemporary Catholic education. The first is that too many Catholic schools strive to be like public schools, but with uniforms and a Crucifix on a wall. These are the so-called “Catholic in name only” schools. To be sure, this is a real problem that many parents face, especially when homeschooling is not a viable option for them.

    The good news is that there are a growing number of bishops and other Catholic education leaders who understand this and have begun the long-overdue process of renewal. The better news is that they have models to emulate in so many lay-run, independent schools, many of which were are recognized by the Newman Society’s Catholic Education Honor Roll or are members of the National Association of Private, Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS).

    An analogy: We didn’t all start taking the bus because some automakers were making sub-par cars in the ’70s and early ’80s. We still drove cars, but instead bought cheaper and more reliable ones. Likewise, market pressures have taken a terrible toll on sub-par Catholic schools, and at long last we are seeing a much-needed renewal.

    The second serious problem noted by the commenters: Catholic education can be prohibitively expensive. This is a real but solvable problem. Many of the newer lay-founded and lay-run independent schools are keeping costs low, while providing a better education and Catholic formation. Homeschooling gets better and better, and it is a cost-effective option for many families. We must stop trying to compete with public schools in terms of facilities and technology, which indicate misplaced priorities. At many of the independent schools, facilities are modest, and a white board substitutes amply for a high-tech “Smart Board” that requires an entire IT department to administer. School choice in the form of tax credits for parents and hybrid models such as those that blend the best of homeschooling and classroom instruction may provide additional areas for making Catholic education affordable for families.

    The bottom line is that we as parents and educators must take the challenges of — and press our shepherds and pastors on — both fidelity and cost, precisely because faithful Catholic education done right is so valuable. Turning our kids over to the State is not the best solution to overpriced, poorly performing Catholic schools. But tragically, as the many comments indicate, even Catholic families who greatly value Catholic education are not yet finding the options they need and deserve — which is why The Cardinal Newman Society works so hard to demand faithful options on behalf of Catholic families.

    • In my area there are no good Catholic schools and plus they are all too expensive, so we homeschooled. Tried one of the Catholic schools for a year and went back to homeschooling. There are public charter schools in the area, and we did one for high school for a couple years which worked great for our special needs child. Now conservative Hillsdale College is opening a classical charter school in my area. Too late for my kids but if I had young kids now I would definitely give it a try. Homeschooling was the best option at the time for us at the time but it was deficient is some ways. I would definitely choose a conservative classical charter school over the Catholic schools in my area.

    • I was waiting for someone to make that clear distinction that many of the commentators overlooked. There is a huge difference between an authentic Catholic school and one that aims to be nothing more than a glorified prep school seeking community approval in order to be more attractive. I cannot wait for the day when statistics are released from authentic Catholic schools that provide success high success rates in regards to young adults owning their faith and providing an excellent example of mature faithful adults versus the ever so impressive college entrance rates that lead to a loss of faith. Really, what is the true aim of raising our children. To be good little cogs in the wheel of the economic machine or to be faithful, virtuous, followers of Jesus Christ.

  21. Many good comments about so-called “Catholic” education. A few add-ons here plus a suggestion…

    During the 80s my late wife and I were given the volunteer task of leading the Confirmation program in our parish. We chose as our text book (a text book instead of banners!) the St. Joseph Catechism (also Pope St. John Paul II’s Letter to Youth, 1985). Not on the approved book list of the archdiocesan cabal of the time (of course!), but our attitude was “so, let ‘them’ fire us!” We were even so pre-Cambrian as to give written quizzes and additional take-home questions.

    Our parish was in the care of its orthodox founder who after three decades was still on duty and refused to retire (refused to abandon his flock, RIP 1988)–Perpetual Adoration was installed as the parish centerpiece in 1986 and still continues. In the parish K-8, about 85 percent of the students still are Catholic, as are all of the teachers.

    At the archdiocesan level, teachers of religion in and outside of the school system now are “encouraged” by the chancery to complete an authentic program in addition to whatever often breezy-or-corrupted qualifications they might otherwise have in their theology resumes. It replaces an earlier and also-credible face-to-face three-year and fee-supported classroom program (which was patterned after the 18-module deacon formation program). Overhead costs, low enrollments, and travel distances (all of Western Washington state) were problems.

    (None of this solves the undermining of Catholic school religious-ed so as to not offend non-Catholic students–sometimes half of the total–who have been admitted to shore up the bottom line.)

    The on-line Augustine Institute is part of the very affordable and accessible new format. For those interested in viewing the new approach as one possible template or model, here’s the link to the Archdiocese of Seattle Catechetical Certification Program (CCP): https://seattlearchmedia.weebly.com/ccp.html

  22. There are bright lights in this gloomy discussion of Catholic education! Many of them center around lay-led efforts to re-center Catholic education in the Liberal Arts. Schools across the country that exemplify Catholic identity are recognized as Honor Roll Schools on the Catholic Education Honor Roll page here https://newmansociety.org/catholic-ed-honor-roll/current-awardees/.

    Other wonderful happenings are those dioceses and school systems (22 in fact!), plus individual independent schools, that are using the Catholic Curriculum Standards. It’s often hard to “turn around a big ship”, but many Catholic schools are already on the right track and others are making concerted efforts to renew their curriculum with Catholic concepts – including the philosophical concepts of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

    Catholic education, when done with integrity, reaches the depths of the human soul that classical charter schools can only partially enter. Classical Charter school families should not be lulled into the mindset that CCD will take care of the religious education for their children. Classical Charter school families, like Catholic public school families, need to increase their religious education at home – this includes instruction in the faith – morality, human sexuality issues, medical ethics; participation in all liturgical feast days – Divine Mercy, First Fridays, Eucharistic adoration and processions, Crowning of Mary, Patron Saint celebrations and stories of the saints and Christian martyrs; frequent reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation; plus Sunday Mass participation and youth group activities in order to completely form the hearts, minds, and souls of students. The building of character that classical charter schools (and public schools) attend to is not sufficient to pass on the Catholic faith to future generations or to instill in students the qualities of piety, reverence, docility to the spirit, and familial love for the Church. Parents can find help to augment this religious education they, as Catholic parents, are called to provide, from the Honor Roll schools above and many others that are intentionally undertaking these renewal efforts.

  23. The problem of cost cannot be addressed only by having fewer technological and other goodies. One big expense is paying a just wage and benefits, especially for fathers of large families who themselves need to give their kids Catholic educations. Then the tuition becomes too expensive for ordinary large families. I have known many people involved in Catholic education, and seen no solutions. It would be good to have articles or studies on this problem.

  24. My daughter attended both a Catholic school and a traditional classical charter school. She had a more in depth immersion into the faith via the charter school than ever in Catholic school. They read St. Augustine. Thomas Aquinas, etc. and parts of the bible followed by lively discussions. Never regretted switching her to the charter school. And she has excellent self discipline, extraordinary reading and writing skills.

  25. Has anyone thought about the massive discrepancy in pay between most public school and Catholic school salaries, not to mention incredible retirement benefits package with public education? As a lifelong Catholic student, but current public school and public university educator and professor, I worry greatly about this pay differential and retirement differential. I worry that many Catholic schools today (and certainly in the future) are getting second-rate teachers, while the public schools are getting the “creme de la.” There will (I pray that is) always be excellent “mission-driven” Catholic teachers. However, in most (if not all) cases, sadly, I do not believe there exists a large enough supply of mission-driven teachers to staff an entire faculty, leaving “second-rate” teachers to eventually fill the rest of the faculty — or in other words, those college of education graduates who couldn’t find a job in the public sector. Solution? Well, simply find a way to invest endowments to pay teachers equal pay and 403B benefits to match or better the public sector, so strong Catholic university students are enticed to teach at a Catholic school. Even, no actually let me say, ESPECIALLY, those “mission-driven” Catholic school teachers deserve this comparable pay! The job of an educator is not 9-months. Summer break is simply comp pay for working 60 to 80-hour weeks all school year, regardless if teaching in a Catholic, private, or public school. Streamline out these 60-80 hours per week times 36 weeks, and likely these teachers did not even receive weekends off or Christmas day. Please pay them justly! This also goes for the public sector! Otherwise you will eventually have a second-rate teaching staff, regardless of the type of school. It is simply labor demand and labor supply, folks. Just my two cents, though. Additional solutions? Pair up with local colleges and universities to hire part-time “adjunct” faculty at Catholic high schools. This allows the Catholic high school to pay a strong adjunct salary without the need for health benefits, since it is not the teacher’s full-time teaching assignment. Solution number three? Continue the programs that ARE working! Hats off to the Alliance for Catholic Education program at the University of Notre Dame!!! They have allowed for many “soon to close” Catholic schools to stay open, by pairing up with Americorps and using significant university funds to defray the education costs at struggling Catholic schools. Congrats to the University of Dayton for establishing a similar program with urban Catholic schools. We need more of this ingenuity. However, this is all duct-tape and band-aids. We really need to establish endowments, invested wisely, and pay Catholic school teachers the just wages they deserve.

    • Another solution may be to fill the schools with religious brothers and sisters that are mission driven with an education background that do not need to feed a family. Yet, completely qualified to educate our youth and remain faithful to church teaching. By doing this in a joyful manner, while at the same time providing an excellent education, an increase in vocations may occur as a serendipity.

  26. The comments sound most familiar. Most Catholic schools are expensive and, from a religious standpoint, be unfamiliar to one who has attended a couple of decades ago. The diocese of Wichita stands out as one of the few exceptions. It provides financial support to its schools and offers a traditional curriculum. Would there were more like this.

  27. Thanks for mentioning that catholic schools teach about human nature and the meaning and beauty of everything around us. My husband and I have been thinking of enrolling our daughters in catholic schools so they could see and live our values and beliefs more in-depth. We’ll have to start looking for great schools in our area!

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