Jonathan Kozol likes to talk about Martin Luther King.  A lot.

This was the main impression that I got from him after listening to him speak at the university earlier this week.  Inequity and segregation are perversions of Dr. King’s dream, he explained, and public schools foment these injustices.

Just don’t ask him about giving kids a chance to get out of them.

Catholic schools have been fighting inequity and segregation since before it could get anyone a book deal, and Kozol openly decries the vouchers or tuition tax credits that would allow these schools to continue their mission.  In fact, he has gone so far as to say “I believe that vouchers are the single worst, most dangerous idea to have entered education discourse in my adult life”.  He advocates for throwing real estate agents in jail if they steer minority families out of neighborhoods that are zoned for good schools, but thinks that it is “dangerous” to separate schooling from residential zoning and let parents pick where their kids go to school.

Now what would Dr. King think about Catholic schools?  I would never try to speak for him, but I can tell you that he had the marchers from Selma camp at one before marching on the Capitol.  And, as illustrated in the picture above, it looked like he was pretty cool with Fr. Hesburgh.

Plus, I think he might like the fact that poor and minority students do better in Catholic Schools , and graduate in higher rates from Catholic schools.  And if he needed more convincing, it might help when a long time civil rights leader finds that religious schools under choice systems are found to be more integrated.

Why are Catholic schools so able to do this?  Why can Catholic schools succeed in providing education for poor and minority students when public schools have failed?  Quite simply, Catholic schools have an institutional advantage over their public school counterparts.   The advantage is three-fold:

1. They are not controlled by political bodies

2. They have a clear sense of mission

3. They foster strong communities

First, Catholic schools are not controlled by the democratic forces that have manipulated the public schools into the mess that they’re in.  Remember, the public schools in this country were not created by some dictator or hewn from the mud of the earth.  The American people, through the democratic process, made schools the way they are.  As I have said before, as long as schools are run by politicians, they will be political entities, and as long as they are political entities, special interest groups (from the Right, Left, or Center) will be able to manipulate them to get what they want.  If segregation is in vogue and white folks are in the majority, don’t be surprised when the public schools come out segregated. Democracy has not been a safeguard against the exploitation of poor and minority youth.

Second, the very mission of Catholic schools is the attempt to erase inequity and foster community and understanding. Catholic schools empower small numbers of committed, mission-driven people to recognize a need in a community and then give them the freedom to serve them the way they see fit.  They don’t weigh their leaders down in thousands of pages of bureaucratic red tape, nor do they hamstring them with onerous labor contracts.  They believe in their principals and teachers, and let them serve their students. Catholic schools can be more flexible and quicker to react to changing circumstances.  This is why we see innovation in the models of Catholic schools.

Finally, Catholic schools foster a strong sense of community.  James Coleman wrote extensively about the community in Catholic schools, explaining their success by the amount of social capital that Catholic school communities instill in their students.  I agree with him.

Now, I am no Pollyanna.  There are some bad Catholic schools out there.  There are some bad Catholic school superintendents, principals, and teachers.  However, the organizational design of Catholic schools makes it much easier to do something about it.  Students leave bad Catholic schools and they close.  Bad teachers get fired, not sent to a rubber room, and resources get re-allocated to better serve the needs of children.

We need vouchers and tuition tax credits to prevent the good Catholic schools from closing.  We need to encourage, not discourage this management system.  We need to stand up for the poor and minority students of this nation, even if that means standing up to someone who purports to speak for them, like Jonathan Kozol.