By John Schoenig
From their origins as the progenitors of the American urban education system through the demographic
shifts that characterized so much of the latter half of the 20th century, faith-based schools have always mattered a great deal to our K-12 landscape. In many ways, they matter now more than ever.
They matter because of their legacy of serving the most marginalized—often recently arrived immigrant—children and families. They matter because they produce graduates who are more likely to vote and give charitably and be tolerant of diverse views. They matter because they have been the bedrock of so many of our most at-risk communities for generations, providing a high-quality education at a fraction of the cost of their traditional public school counterparts. They matter because, at their best, they will stop at nothing to help their students realize the greatness for which each and every one of them was made.
For all the reasons that faith-based schools matter today, the most urgent and important may be the unique and integral role they play in attending to the alarming inequality of educational opportunity that many of our most at-risk children face. While they represent a small portion of our overall educational ecosystem, these schools are nonetheless vitally important in nurturing the soul of our nation. They challenge children to persist in the face of adversity, to take pride in being constant learners, and to treat others with the infinite dignity with which all of us are endowed.
As my colleagues and I at the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education Program, or ACE, are fond of saying about the Catholic schools we have been privileged to support, these schools help place at-risk young people on the path to college and heaven.
Signs of hope continue to abound throughout the country in the form of "three-sector reform" strategies. These include vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and other publicly funded scholarships for low-income families; school-level accountability; and innovative teacher and leader pipelines.
I have supported some of these efforts in my role with ACE. In ACE, we help strengthen and transform Catholic schools in service to children on the margins of society. Through our formation programs, which include Teaching Fellows, our STEM education research programming, and comprehensive partnership efforts, we partner with dioceses, schools, and local communities to provide a high-quality Catholic education to as many children as possible.
All of this work is animated by our firm conviction that every child is made in the image and likeness of God. We believe that education is an integral part of sanctification, and we know that we have been granted a sacred trust in helping form future saints. Over the course of the past quarter-century, issues of educational inequality have consumed oceans of ink. Unfortunately, much of what's been written reflects an abiding divisiveness that is unworthy of the children entrusted to our care. Amid this sturm und drang, I hope our policymakers—regardless of their personal creed—continue to push for reform that will serve families who are interested in a high-quality education in a faith-based key. At a time when so many of our communities are characterized more by what divides them than what unites them, these schools are sacred spaces that provide an invaluable civic purpose.
John Schoenig is the senior director of teacher formation and education policy for the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education.