As regular readers of CWR know, I have spent my entire priestly life and ministry in the Catholic school apostolate. I am proud of the Catholic schooling I received, and I am proud of what Catholic educators are doing today. This past Saturday, however, I was exceedingly proud as President Donald Trump had a conference call with Catholic leaders and educators that spanned more than an hour of give-and-take between the President and these key workers in the Lord’s vineyard. I am told that more than 2700 people were tuned in, which might remind Americans of an earlier era of the “fireside chats” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The proximate cause of the event was the impact of the pandemic on Catholic schools. Throughout, the President was comfortable, engaging, and attentive.
Catholic leaders included four bishops and three educators. The President had on deck Betsy DeVos (secretary of education), Dr. Ben Carson (secretary of housing and urban development), and Kellyanne Conway (counselor to the President—and a Catholic school graduate).
President Trump kicked off with accolades for the Catholic schools of America, calling them “a source of strength, hope and opportunity,” where God—“the deepest source of our strength”—has a place. He noted that he grew up in the shadow of Mary Immaculate School in Queens, by which he said he always felt “inspired,” even if not a Catholic. He reminded all that he had insisted on the inclusion of Catholic schools in the recent financial compensation programs—although that paragon of Catholicity, Nancy Pelosi, had tried to exclude our institutions. He also noted his consistent work to advance the pro-life cause and religious liberty, as well as taking the muzzle off religious leaders with the easing of the restrictions imposed on us since 1954 with the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” which has been held as a sword of Damocles over clergy or religious organizations who spoke in favor or in opposition to a particular party or candidate for office. With those brief introductory remarks, he passed the baton to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, whose constant counsel he says he has sought and valued, especially in recent weeks.
Cardinal Dolan quipped that his 90-year-old mother complained that her son was spending more time on the phone with the President than with her. He then thanked the President for all his efforts to advance issues of concern to the Catholic community, noting, however, that promotion of parental rights and freedom of choice in education is not an exclusively Catholic issue. I was pleased that the Cardinal referred to what are commonly called “public schools” as “government schools,” which is far more accurate. The Cardinal pointed out that our schools perform twice as well as the government schools at half the price but sounded an alarm in that the financial downturn from the pandemic is suggesting some bleak prospects for the coming academic year as parents are unsure if they will be able to afford tuition in light of their perilous monetary situation. Acknowledging the President’s support thus far, he asked for even more assistance in the coming months. The President responded with promises of aid to parents and to schools. He didn’t miss the opportunity to stress the importance of the November 3 presidential election for Catholic issues.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston spoke next, asserting that no institution has been more successful than the Catholic school system in leading generations out of poverty to fulfilling lives. He also astonished the President by declaring that the Catholic schools of Boston save the taxpayers one billion dollars annually. He was followed by the Jesuit Bishop of Oakland, Michael Barber, head of the committee on education of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Bishop Barber underscored the fundamental importance of acknowledging that parents are the primary educators of their children and that educational choice ought not be contingent on parental ability to pay for that choice. He praised Secretary DeVos for her sensitivity to Catholic school concerns and then made a direct appeal to the President, in the face of the current economic crisis, to fashion tax policy which would allow parents to deduct their tuition expenses and, secondly, to promote legislation offering direct aid to families; he was quick to caution against direct aid to schools (lest there be governmental incursions tied to such aid). Interestingly, he thanked President Trump for his two Supreme Court appointments, proudly observing that they are both products of Catholic education.
Presentations by prelates concluded with that of Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and president of the USCCB. The Archbishop said that Catholic schools, which have existed even before the forming of the Republic, need to be considered “an essential part of the national infrastructure.” He also emphasized that access to an education in “excellence and virtue” should not be constrained due to parental finances. The President responded to the bishops by observing that the accomplishments of our schools are “highly unappreciated” and suggested that we do more to toot our own horn. Somewhat cryptically, he also remarked that attacks on the Church have, in the main, been “unfair and untrue,” urging the bishops to fight back with the aid of “tough lawyers.” He said he was sure everyone knew to what he was referring; I think we did.
Paul Escala, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, indicated that his school system is the largest non-public school sector in the nation and that the Catholic schools of California save the State’s tax-payers two billion dollars annually (the President was so impressed by that statistic that he interrupted him, asking if anyone had national figures); he also spoke with pride of the fact that the LA Catholic schools had their children in online instruction within 72 hours of the shut-down of the State’s schools—although not a few public school districts are not yet online! He expressed concern that his schools have experienced a 55% drop in tuition payments, suggesting storm clouds for the coming year if some kind of governmental assistance is not forthcoming. The Denver archdiocesan superintendent, Elias Moo, commented that three-fourths of the government school children perform below grade level, while Catholic school students not only outperform them but do so at one-fourth the cost. He made the salient assessment that Catholic schools see themselves as support for parents, not their replacement; he ended with that lovely citation from Pope Benedict’s address to Catholic educators in Washington in 2008, namely, that Catholic schools “nurture the soul of the nation.”
Formal presentations were ended by Sister Catherine Marie (of the wonderful Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist from Ann Arbor), principal of St. Isaac Jogues School in the Archdiocese of Detroit. She highlighted the four goals held out by Archbishop Alan Vigneron for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese, so as to “unleash” the schools; she stressed that the majority of her school parents constitute blue-collar families and thus are in a precarious position for the coming school year.
The line was then opened for questions or comments from listeners. One woman, very helpfully, responded to the President’s earlier inquiry about the national savings to taxpayers: $24 billion, also emphasizing that Catholic schools generally spend $6000 per child, compared to the government school rate of $12,000. A number of callers praised the President for his support of persons of faith and faith communities. President Trump warned that Joe Biden is being controlled by the radical left, who are very “vicious” people, “looking to harm you (Catholics)!”
Secretary DeVos ended the session by declaring: “We have heard you. We are walking beside you!”
I have been around the pony track on the issue of parental freedom of choice in education since 1980, wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Supreme Court and Catholic schools,1 and have heard a lot of promises, usually quite empty. This time I believe we have genuine cause for hope based on President Trump’s performance to date: He promised to be a pro-life president, and he has delivered; he promised to be a president of religious freedom, and he has been. Now he promises to be a president of school choice.
Promotion of parental freedom of choice in education has characterized Catholic social justice teaching for the past two centuries. On November 16, 1879, Cardinal John Henry Newman replied to a letter of the Archbishop of Sydney (Roger Bede Vaughan), who had thanked the newly-minted Cardinal for his support for the cause of Catholic education in Australia. St. John Henry summed up the issue very neatly:
It pleased me to find that you could make it [his intervention] serviceable in the anxious conflict in which you are at this time engaged in defence of Christian education. It is indeed the gravest of questions whether our people are to commence life with or without adequate instruction in those all-important truths which ought to colour all thought and to direct all action;—whether they are or are not to accept this visible world for their god and their all, its teaching as their only truth, and its prizes as their highest aims;—for, if they do not gain, when young, that sacred knowledge which comes to us from Revelation, when will they acquire it?
Yes, if not “when young,” then “when”? That has been the “holy obsession” of every saint of the Church in our nation—from Mother Seton and Mother Drexel, to Mother Cabrini and Mother Duchesne, as well as of the holy fourth bishop of Philadelphia, John Neumann. Through their intercession, may Almighty God use this non-Catholic President to bring this 200-year-old hope of the Catholic community to fulfillment.
[Note: Father Peter Stravinskas serves as the president of the Catholic Education Foundation.]
1An abbreviated version of the research project has been published by Newman House Press as Constitutional Rights and Religious Prejudice: Catholic Education as the Battleground.
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