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Saving Catholic Education: Policy and Pedagogy

There's an interesting discussion this week on the excellent website Ethika Politika about the rising cost of Catholic education.  In an essay "The Tuition Is Too Damn High," Mattias Caro covers a lot of ground, noting the decline of Catholic school enrollments, the skyrocketing rate of tuition in many Catholic schools, and the failure of Church leaders to both promote Catholic education for those who can afford it and to respond to the impossibility for families of modest means to choose Catholic education themselves.

Caro notes how Pope Francis' call for justice for the poor contrasts with this situation, and wonders if it's not time for the church to consider new pedagogical philosophies as a means of reviving Catholic education, but what he has in mind are some tried-and-true methods such as "classical" education and Montessori.

As is typical for Ethika Politika, reader comments to the essay have extended the discussion in thoughtful ways.  Several readers pointed out that the cost 0f Catholic education is directly tied to the massive decline in vocations to religious life.  It was easier to provide low-cost Catholic schools when they were mostly staffed by members of religious orders who took vows of poverty.  Now that the sisters and brothers are gone, personnel costs for maintaining a teaching staff of lay people with families are substantially higher.

Other readers pointed out that homeschooling is a viable and perhaps preferred mechanism of Catholic education, and Caro heartily concurs, noting that he and his wife are actively involved in the homeschooling movement.

For my part as a Catholic Christian, a former Catholic school educator, and a soon-t0-be Catholic school parent, I think potential strategies for addressing the problem Mattias Caro so ably lays out include "all of the above."

The Catholic Church has been an early and vocal advocate for the expansion of various public policies of school choice, including vouchers and tuition tax credits.  This position acknowledges that while schooling is a public good, there is no Gospel suggesting that government-run schools are the best or only way to effectively provide for that common good.  As Ashley Rogers Berner described in First Things a couple of years ago, many other countries have workable models of "educational pluralism" that both recognize the value of non-public education to a vibrant democracy and empower low-income families to exercise that option.

Unfortunately I think much of the Church's emphasis on school choice has remained at the level of the bishop's conferences and has not been intentionally pursued at the parish level, so many Catholic parents remain relatively uninformed about school choice and how such policies could benefit their own families and other families who long for a Catholic education but cannot afford it.

I'm hoping that will change dramatically in Kentucky next year as the Catholic Conference of Kentucky tries once again to promote a tuition assistance tax credit policy that would encourage the growth of tuition assistance programs for low-income families.  This strategy bypasses some of the more difficult political and legal hurdles of a voucher policy while expanding access to non-public schools.  But the success of such a bill will depend on educating and mobilizing parents (both Catholic and non-Catholic) at the local level.

Besides policy prescriptions, though, I agree with Caro that the Church needs to broaden its thinking about Catholic education, especially in terms of pedagogical method.  He writes:

In the longer term, the Church should ask not only how to fund her schools but whether the need for such an education might be provided by other forms...If the intellect and moral imagination is being formed by the virtuous past of human tradition, there is no tension between faith and education. Can we consider pedagogies and approaches that are not strictly “Catholic” as still being formed by the Catholic heart, mind, and imagination? The recent recovery of Montessori education as a Catholic education seems to point to the answer being yes.

I would heartily echo that "yes," as my experience of sending my own children to a Montessori pre-school has had a profound impact on my thinking about teaching and learning.

In my experience, many Catholic schools still offer an extremely traditional approach to education.  Classes are teacher-driven, involve tons of rote memorization and regurgitation of facts, and duplicate some of the worst aspects of the "industrial model" of education we see in public schools, including grading practices that don't convey much meaningful information about what students have learned and foster an unnecessary and sometimes destructive emphasis on comparison and competition among children.

There are better ways, and the Montessori Method represents one of them.  Maria Montessori was a Catholic after all, and understood her approach in light of Catholic teaching.  Her student Sofia Cavalletti went on to develop a beautiful method of religious education based on the Montessori method called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

My point is that there is nothing inherently Catholic about the Prussian style of industrial education that has dominated American (and many European) schools for the last century, and Catholic schools should investigate and embrace new pedagogical approaches that reflect what we've discovered in that time about how children learn.  This is actually happening - to a very modest and halting extent - in traditional public schools.  Catholic children deserve the same kind of learning opportunities.

Additionally, I've come to see homeschooling as a completely viable educational option for many families, one that in some cases is preferable to traditional schools, both public and Catholic.  Read my recent, two-part review of Suzie Andres' The Little Way of Homeschooling here and here.  Every family's educational needs are unique, and Catholics (and educators in general) should embrace and support a wide range of meaningful educational options.

Of course, as Mattias Caro implies, Church leaders must themselves come to courageously confront the current crisis in Catholic education.  This means bringing policy battles for school choice in front of parish congregations.  It means confronting the rigid, teacher-driven learning models of Catholic schools by introducing parents and educators to new pedagogical approaches.  And it means supporting and encouraging homeschooling Catholic families.

But above all it means placing a greater emphasis on the natural and necessary link between faith and learning and what it means to raise Catholic children in an increasingly hostile culture. 

So there's lots of work to do, from the bishop's office to the principal's office to the family kitchen table.  Let's get busy.

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