A religious virtual “charter” school, the first in the US, is set to open in Oklahoma in the fall of 2024, The Oklahoman reports.
The Most Rev Paul S Coakley and the Most Rev David A Konderla, both Roman Catholic bishops, begin their Oklahoman op-ed by saying, “Every child in Oklahoma deserves to thrive in an educational environment that best suits their specific needs while striving to reach their full God-given potential—whether that be in a public school, home school, or private school. With underserved students in mind, a new option will soon be available to families statewide with Oklahoma’s first virtual school based on the Catholic tradition of excellence in education.”
Whether Father Coakley and Father Kanderla’s opening sentence is more indicative of immature logic or inadequate ability to express oneself in writing, it in no way, shape, or form supports a claim as to the need for a religious-based, publicly-funded charter school in Oklahoma or anywhere in the US. It simply states the obvious: that every child deserves an education that is appropriate for that child. Notwithstanding the weak opening, there is no denying the excellence in education demonstrated and long proven in Catholic schools regarding academics, the fine arts, and athletics. I have often written about such distinctions on these pages over the last 12 years.
Forget, for the moment, that the state’s Constitution seems to speak against providing public funds for such a school: “Provisions shall be made for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools, which shall be open to all the children of the state and free from sectarian control.” Constitutions can be amended, and the language doesn’t prohibit such a school as long as other schools are maintained that are free of sectarian control. Yet other state laws (e.g., §70-3-136 of Oklahoma’s Charter School Act) disallow charter schools “affiliated with a nonpublic sectarian school or religious institution.”
Forget, for the moment, that hundreds or thousands of Roman Catholic priests and brothers have been justifiably accused of child abuse, and archdiocesan officials in Baltimore and Chicago have been accused by state attorneys general of covering up the crimes against children committed by subordinates. The parent organization, the Roman Catholic Church, has apologized and stated that the Church isn’t what it once was, even in the absence of any real change in the parent organization that would affect the propensity of priests and brothers to abuse children.
Forget, for the moment, that Supreme Court cases, including Everson v Board of Education (1947), applied the First Amendment’s establishment clause to the states, relying on President Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor in announcing a strict wall of separation between church and state. In recent years, the Court has started to poke holes in that wall, a trend that could continue.
No, my primary objection to developing a public Catholic charter school is that providing public funds and thus replacing tuition paid by families removes some sense of community and strips a few factors that improve student engagement with school. This engagement is fundamental to Catholic school student success. Now, Catholic schools tend to have committed and dedicated teaching staffs—many teachers are passionate about teaching. But parents who pay tuition, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars per year, also encourage students to engage in their learning.
Without the express effort from parents, student engagement may suffer, and outcomes may not be as bright as promised, ultimately reducing the reputation of Catholic schools. The reasons involve many of the important contributing factors to the substantial academic success of Catholic school students. We cannot make the weak strong by making the strong weak.
Emphasis on discipline and structure
Catholic schools often focus on discipline and structure. That can contribute to a positive learning environment because setting clear expectations, often through routines, helps to create an environment that fosters academic achievement.
Catholic schools often integrate moral and ethical teachings into the curriculum. Such an emphasis on character development can promote a sense of purpose, responsibility, and personal growth among students, having a positive impact on their academic performance.
While sitting in a classroom at any Catholic school, observers often see a strong sense of student collaboration. Following Catholic school teachers throughout their day often results in observations of a strong sense of cooperation among teachers. Teachers and students are often seen collaborating on learning projects in the schools, and the involvement of parents in the education of their children in Catholic schools is also robust. After all, tuition payment creates a strong desire to ensure they’re getting what they’re paying for.
Because the entire school community is supportive and harmonious, student engagement with their learning is encouraged. In addition, a supportive community can often provide resources for students to help them master academic content whenever such assistance might be needed.
Not only do parents have high expectations of their children attending Catholic schools that are taking so much of the family budget, but teachers themselves and other school officials typically set very high academic expectations for their students. The curriculum emphasizes critical thinking and fosters strong study skills. Being surrounded by high expectations tends to challenge students and push them to higher academic achievement.
But with less effective support from parents, in part because the monetary investment in their children’s education has been stripped away, the effectiveness of one factor that promotes student engagement is reduced. The payment of high tuition, of course, isn’t the most significant factor that starts a lengthy cause-and-effect chain that results in strong encouragement of student engagement, but charter schools involve students’ families paying zero tuition. The tuition amount may not contribute very much to students’ academic success, but community support and high expectations do. And paying at least some tuition promotes both.