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The Change We Need in Inner-City Education: A Catholic Prescription for Obama's Second Term

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Here in California, an outfit called Rocketship schools has launched an entreprenurial effort to rescue inner city kids from more impoverished education programs. So far there are seven rockets aloft and the results appear promising. The idea is to create a replicable curriculum of excellence based upon significant parental involvement, challenging courses, and teaching efficiencies heavily reliant upon on-line or computer lab learning and problem solving. The rocketeers are charter schools and have the advantage of charter flexibility.

The rocketship school initiative is small, but with the encouragement of a President Obama seeking to leave a legacy among those most in need, these institutions can be aimed at even higher orbits of excellence. One truly constructive way for that to occur would be if the Department of Education could facilitate the merger of rocketship school type innovation with Catholic school models of parental involvement, discipline and high standard. The Catholic school system has for more than a century and a half been the mainstay of inner city achievement. Patrick McCloskey, the project director of the Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola-Chicago, noted in correspondence:

The relationship between the charter school movement and Catholic schooling is complex. In Chicago, there is a group of Christian Brothers who translated their very successful approach (over three centuries) to teaching inner-city students into secular terms and now run three charter schools. On the other hand, there has been much resistance to charters from Catholic educators and diocesan officials. As a result, charters open and compete for many of the same students being served by Catholic schools. In New York State, 185 charters have opened and the same number of Catholic schools closed. So inner-city students are not much further ahead. What's needed is far better coordination between charter operators and Catholic schools offices.

Catholic schools long enjoyed the intelligent (and free) services of religious sisters who devoted their lives to teaching as vocation. But there has been a radical decline in vocation for a variety of reasons: Vatican II reforms lessened the "special community of friendship" previously enjoyed in religious life, by phasing out the identifiable religious habit and dispersing sisters into the general community. Such "worldly" arrangement has been vocationally less attractive. Combine this with a demoralizing priest scandal -- and priests (or at least some ultra-conservative bishops) who chastise these good sisters for being progressively in tune with the social justice teaching of the church which honors life not just by a constant moan against contraception, but opposition to unjustified military adventures such as Iraq, capital punishment and economic policies that make a mockery of the idea of a "family wage" -- and one begins to understand why the average age of religious sisters in the U.S. is well into the 70s.

It may be that much of the vocational decline can be reversed merely by honoring these women of extraordinary service and reversing the policies that have diminished their ranks.

Of course, one might think the Catholic church of the 21st century would be open to reconsider the celibacy vow for religious sisters. This is a topic for another column, but as in the priesthood itself, celibacy can be an option; there is nothing that compels it to be the only path.

Nevertheless, the doctrinal rethinking needed to revitalize the supply of Catholic educators may take a while and the inner city need for an increase in affordable, yet highly proficient teachers is now. One way to meet this need would be to expand on President Obama's national day of service and make collaborating Catholic and charter schools the special object of that focus. For example, these schools could find and incorporate large numbers of "volunteer" teachers of excellence (e.g., retired attorneys, doctors, engineers, business execs and homemakers). Many of these teaching volunteers are already primed to come as unpaid parents or grandparents, but all these folks have friends without nearby enrolled descendants, and they too can participate. This highly competent pool of talent would add immensely to the quality and practical credibility of inner city programs, even as the lack of a teaching credential most regrettably bars them from the typical public school.

By bringing in this wealth of "retired" talent, for free or close to it, the Catholic-charter rocketship-type school would have simultaneously enrich the culture, improve the educational relationship of students and teachers, and enhance overall academic performance. But it is not likely to happen unless the president and Secretary Duncan bring the players onto the same field.

Is President Obama interested in melding the well-studied and proven strengths of Catholic education with charter monies and flexibility advantages?

In the book "America Undecided," examining the social justice rationale for re-electing President Obama, co-authors Pat Whelan, Ed Gaffney and I documented the young Obama's sincere dedication to the needs of the urban poor. Newly conducted interviews of those who hired and supervised Obama's efforts find the future 44th President of the United States working out of a Catholic rectory at Holy Rosary parish. There on the south side of Chicago, the 20-something Obama saw the value of the Catholic parish school, but also witnessed the beginning of the closing and merger of these schools that existed -- then and now -- on the most slender of resources, multiples less than suburban property taxes yields for the still de facto segregated public schools of the suburbs.

It is well known that Obama's own family was not religious, though Obama's mother and grandparents who raised him cared deeply about the needs of others less fortunate and had the unique ability to put themselves in another's place. The interviews in our book reveal the young Barack having these same qualities. The caring empathy of his extended family gave young Obama the fortunate opportunity to receive one of the finest secondary educations. Obama begins to repay that gift when he arrives in Chicago truly interested in community change and the organization needed to accomplish it.

With a grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Obama's main focus was the economic dislocation related to the shuttering of many of the mid-western steel plants. Obama's tasks in those days were to help families keep body and soul together and find what re-training he could for the unemployed. Not surprisingly, the president, whose parenting is often noted as one of his best qualities, found that even fathers and mothers down on their luck kept the educational progress of the their sons and daughters foremost in their minds. As one of his priest co-workers observed, he gained a special respect for the Catholic school system. Catholic schools were an embodiment of change since, as one pastor put it, "[Obama] recognized that Catholic schools [were] a vehicle by which children could be prepared to compete in life." In his U.S. Senate campaign in 2004, Obama would return to these schools to film a campaign ad that championed the education provided there.

President Obama now has a bigger community to re-organize, and there is no better place to do it than to assist in the salvation of the ideal of educational opportunity for the urban poor that Catholic schools have historically represented.

The Constitution is not an impediment to the revival and improvement of these Catholic educational efforts with federal and state public time and resources. It has long been recognized that religious schools generally can participate in general subsidies for all things secular: textbooks, science lab equipment, transportation to and from, etc. More than a decade ago, to further alleviate any sensitivity of church and state, the Supreme Court approved the idea of school vouchers that empowers parents to personally allocate their child's pro rata share of education support thereby avoiding any appearance of government endorsement. By now, one would have expected the voucher path to bring far greater resource to the less advantaged than it has. Instead, New York's Catholic archdiocese is considering the closure of 28 Catholic schools after having shut down an almost equal number of elementary schools as recently as 2011.

Of course, even as voucher funding process should satisfy the formal constitutional objection to sharing greater public support with Catholic schools, it is worth emphasizing that the Catholic vocation to the needs of the poor has never been exclusionary. Here, with due respect, the president could do a little fence mending. In particular, he could acknowledge the ecumenical nature of the Catholic effort (something the artificially narrow religious exemption the HHS thrust upon him last year in the health reform did not properly credit). The notion that a religious exemption is only warranted if a religious entity serves its own kind is to say the least distinctly un-Christian -- and if I may -- counter to the way Obama was welcomed years ago into the Catholic ethic of service. In any event, it has never been the way of the Church. As one prelate once politely responded when he was asked why Catholics were spending their money educating children who were not, he responded, "We do so not because they are Catholic, but because we are."

That said, to eliminate all sectarian objection, a Catholic school striking a partnership with a public charter/rocketship type initiative under the aegis and sponsorship of the Obama Department of Education would do well to add another dimension; specifically, the curricular religious components might be transformed more explicitly into an interfaith effort at promoting mutual respect and mutual understanding.

A short time ago, as the president's ambassador to the predominately Catholic nation of Malta, I surveyed the practices of U.S. and E.U. schools in the area of comparative religion. Administrators in both saw considerable value in the promotion of tolerance that results; yet, without the kind of presidential encouragement envisioned here, less than 5 percent of U.S. schools and less than 15 percent of those surveyed in Europe made the effort to enlighten students about the many different ways religious belief is incorporated into human existence.

The president knows transformational change requires effective organization. He learned that lesson well in inner city Chicago 30 years ago, and there is no reason his efforts today cannot transform, as well as unite, the Catholic and public innovations aimed at helping those most in need.

Can he do it?

Yes, he -- and we -- can!