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School Choices

14 Feb

Catholic schoolsWhen I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Catholic education didn’t seem that complicated to me. Like most of the other kids from St. Elizabeth parish, I attended the parochial elementary school for eight years and then went to one of the Catholic high schools in the area.

Now, as the father of six children, I understand that there’s much more to providing an education for my children than meets the eye. There are now more educational options than ever, and Catholic schools can be very expensive for medium-to-large middle-class families.

My wife Maureen and I annually survey the horizon to help us prayerfully discover what’s best for each particular child, keeping in mind his or her needs, gifts, and interests, but above all our duty to provide for our children’s formation in the Catholic faith. We’re well aware that many of our own school contemporaries stopped practicing the faith upon graduation, and so we see clearly the need to discern the matter with great care. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that parents not only should select a suitable school, but even more “they have the mission of educating their children in the Christian faith.” It seems to me that this “mission” from God should not be taken lightly.

There are many ways that Catholic parents can fulfill their mission to educate their children in the Christian faith. This brings us to the next document in our survey of the documents of Vatican II: the 1965 Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis, or “GE”).

Among the various choices, pride of place still belongs to Catholic schools, where the faith is taught in the context of a thoroughly Catholic curriculum and environment. In fact, GE “reminds Catholic parents of the duty of entrusting their children to Catholic schools wherever and whenever it is possible and of supporting these schools to the best of their ability and of cooperating with them for the education of their children” (no. 8).

In addition, there is now a growing number of “independent” Catholic schools. Many of these schools have arisen in response to perceived deficiencies in the existing Catholic and public schools. They tend to be smaller and more autonomous, giving parents greater control over curriculum and student life.

Other private schools, including Protestant-run Christian schools, often provide a high-quality education coupled with strong moral formation. The downside, of course, is that the Catholic faith is not taught and in fact the child will likely be challenged early and often regarding his or her distinctively Catholic beliefs. The child will require very strong grounding in the faith at home to flourish in that setting.

Public schools are always an affordable option, and in some cases they may be the best choice because of the range of special educational services and programs they provide. Given the pervasively secular nature of the public school system, however, parents need to be especially vigilant lest their children end up being formed by the popular culture rather than the Catholic faith.

Home schooling continues to be the fastest-growing option. In the United States, more than 2 million children are home schooled, and that number is increasing every year. My own family home schooled for many years. No doubt, it can be demanding–especially for larger families. Yet, by seeing our home as a “Catholic school,” we firmly believed that we were singularly embracing our mission as the primary educators of our children as described by Vatican II.

We must consider all of our options in light of the reality of today’s political and social climate. Societal attacks on marriage and family life filter their way down to individual families in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. If someone today speaks out against perverse lifestyles, he’s vilified and sent away for “sensitivity training.” However, large families are fair game, and derogatory comments about the Catholic faith or one’s family size are commonplace and socially acceptable.

Further, exercising our right to educate our children as we see fit comes at a significant cost. For example, as a home schooling father, even before buying books and school supplies for my home, I still had to support the public and Catholic school systems through my taxes and tithes. Now with kids in Catholic elementary and secondary schools as well as a Catholic college, I can understand the financial pressures Catholic parents face when it comes to education.

While assistance from the government in the form of vouchers would be most welcome, parents should also be able to expect assistance and support from the local Church when it comes to our educational choices. It seems to me that a culture of cooperation would be much more constructive than a culture of competition and suspicion. One encouraging example of this cooperation occurs when Catholic schools, taking their lead from the public schools, allow home schooling families to use some of their resources.

For many reasons, there is a natural tension among proponents of the educational alternatives available to us. The fact is that in choosing what’s best for their particular children, Catholic parents “should enjoy the fullest liberty in their choice of school” (GE 6). The Catechism further affirms the parents’ right to choose a school that corresponds to their own convictions (no. 2229).

In response to all this, I’d like to offer four principles that have guided my family’s decisions regarding the education of our children, which has led us to home schooling, Catholic schools, public schools, and independent schools at different times. Continue reading