11/14/2013 04:29 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

It's Time to Recognize The Value of Faith-Based Schools

The words of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor should both haunt and motivate us. Asked recently by Anderson Cooper if she would have become who she is without the help of a faith-based school, Blessed Sacrament in the Bronx, Sotomayor said, "Doubtful." In an interview with the New York Times, she said the school was, "a road of opportunity for kids with no other alternative."

Now it's gone. Like more than 1,300 other Catholic schools in the past 20 years, Blessed Sacrament fell victim to sweeping social and economic forces -- and to education policies that blind themselves to the tremendous value of faith-based schools.

No one can credibly assert the U.S. has a surplus of high-quality schools, especially high-quality schools that serve urban communities with poor families. Yet month after month, year after year, decade after decade, we have watched as thousands of faith-based schools have been forced to close. America is losing a valuable national asset -- not because it has become obsolescent, not because the demand for it has disappeared, not because the need for it has been satisfied by other entities but because of a needlessly narrow view of which families should have the choice in education that is so dear to the middle class.

The charter and magnet school movements have diversified public schools. Parents in select states and areas can now, with full public support, opt for schools that stress language immersion, math and science, the arts -- indeed any school that meets or exceeds standards for public education. But parents who lack the means to afford a faith-based education for their children routinely are told the state will offer them no support. Only 17 states have scholarship programs that empower parents to choose a faith-based school, and most of those are small and targeted. They represent important opportunities, but come nowhere close to meeting demand.

This is a costly mistake. Parents know what their children need far better than a school district official -- a perfect stranger -- assigning a child a school via ZIP code. Robbing parents of the authority and responsibility for selecting the education their children receive has consequences beyond education. It contributes to alienation from their community. They feel powerless to help their children. Having no authority, they often reject responsibility.

Most people understand why parents and their children benefit from different learning options, but too many voters reflexively draw a bright line with religious-based schools. There is neither a constitutional, civic, nor moral reason to do so.

Nearly a century ago, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized religious schools can be used to satisfy compulsory education laws. Just 11 years ago, the court also settled the question of whether government can provide the financial help necessary to choice. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, in fact, the court said not only that school vouchers can be used at faith-based schools, but that their exclusion from such a scholarship program would amount to a form of religious discrimination.

Clearly, we respect traditional public schools as an important option. But we are for an equal ability to access all schools. Parents who seek a faith-based education option are not second-class citizens. They should be supported everywhere as other families already are, especially in low-income areas where quality choices are few. In states with small educational choice programs, we call for expanded eligibility so more families can benefit.

We see glimmers of hope. In Indiana and Louisiana, lawmakers had the courage to recognize and respond to the needs of thousands of low- and moderate-income families who wanted more choice and access to quality schools. Under those states' respective voucher programs, enrollment in faith-based schools has grown rapidly in just the past two years. In Florida, meanwhile, nearly 60,000 low-income students this year accessed private schools, most of them faith-based, through that state's thriving tax credit scholarship program.

As more parents and educators see the value of school choice, the broad coalition that supports it continues to grow, too. More and more Democrats like newly elected U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who challenged the educational status quo as mayor of Newark, N.J., are coming on board. Last year, the American Center for School Choice formed the national Commission on Faith-based Schools to raise awareness. Its first school leadership summit is in New York City this month. All the ferment suggests it's not too late to save this precious asset.

Somewhere out there, a future Sonia Sotomayor can live up to her potential. She may do it in a traditional public school, a charter school or a faith-based school. Where that happens is far less important than that it happens, period. Whatever our differences, we know we all agree on that.