This winter we have known some cold and snowy days. It calls to mind a time I visited an inner-city school one blustery, wet January morning and asked the assembled students, “Why would we be here on such a miserable day? Why did we come to school today?” One fourth-grader stood with great pride and answered, “I come to this school so that I can get an education and I can get a life.” His schoolmates nodded and then applauded.
We all know how vital a quality education is. Especially for those from underprivileged backgrounds, it can mean the difference between getting a life and ending up on the streets. Learning is not only important for finding a good job, it is indispensible to a free and equal society. Having escaped from slavery after learning to read and write, Frederick Douglass explained that education “means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free.”
Essential to this is equal opportunity and freedom in choosing a school to attend – regardless of whether it is a state-run school or not – as well as funding to go with it (Declaration on Christian Education, 6). Obtaining a good education should not depend upon one’s financial status. Yet, too many children in our country are denied the kind of quality education to which others with more resources have access.
Closing these learning gaps is a moral imperative and a civic and economic necessity. Catholic schools play a particularly crucial role here, as demonstrated by our history of educational solidarity with the disadvantaged and working to heal past injustices inflicted by society, such as those suffered by the African-American community. In Catholic schools nationally 99 percent of students graduate.
One highly successful initiative that equips low-income families with the means to make educational freedom a reality is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). This federal aid program provides funding to students in the District so that they can receive a quality education at a school of their choosing instead of a failing public school. These federal funds go to District public schools, District charter schools and to District private schools, including Catholic schools.
Since its inception in 2004, over 5,600 families – 98 percent of whom are minorities – have received assistance. More than half of them have chosen to use their scholarships to attend one of our excellent Catholic schools. Two-thirds of these families are non-Catholic. Last year, Catholic schools received $8 million as a part of OSP.
Despite the fact that they reduce income disparity and improve academic performance, public scholarships and educational tax credits have been opposed by some who argue that public monies should not be used for “private” schools. In fact, like the Church as a whole which exists to serve all, Catholic schools operate not for private gain, but instead they provide substantial benefits to the entire community, making the expenditure of public funds to families in programs like OSP just and appropriate (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 16-17).
Indeed, a report authorized by the U.S. Department of Education has found that such non-discrimination in educational funding is the practice of other countries with high performing schools throughout the world. Another report shows that, among the nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average level of public funding made available for families to send their children to non-public schools if they choose is nearly 60 percent.
Programs such as OSP are proven means of providing for a fair and equitable distribution of the education monies to which we all contribute, not to mention bringing much greater academic success for recipients. But without OSP, these disadvantaged young people would be denied the ladders of opportunity that they need to climb up out of poverty to a better life.
In the District of Columbia, the Catholic schools educate just under 6,000 students and are supported by tuitions, parish grants, gifts from supporters of Catholic education and the Archdiocese of Washington. These schools not only successfully educate the children entrusted to their care but save the tax payers of the District of Columbia 100 million dollars a year. This figure is based on the current cost to educate a student in the D.C. public schools.
The education of the children of our community should be a top priority for all of us. The partnership that involves the OSP scholarships, parents of children in the schools, Catholic parishes, donors and the archdiocese is an extraordinarily successful way to realize the priority of kids first.