(Guest Post by Shannon Stackhouse Flores)
As a graduate of a doctoral program at a large public university, to even say the words “school choice” or “Catholic education” causes me to cringe in fear of retribution from many of my colleagues. For this reason, I have hesitated in the past to identify myself with the school choice movement, at least as a political concept.
In order to expand the reach of my passion, however, I think it is very important to define for myself and for others my convictions at this moment, as a fairly young researcher. It is impossible to deny that my viewpoint has been very much formed by my own schooling experiences (Catholic K-8, magnet high school, private undergraduate institution, Catholic graduate school and public graduate school) as well as by the foundational fact that I am black and Catholic, the latter largely a result of my elementary experience.
That out of the way, one of my hesitations in joining this debate has been that despite a great fondness for Catholic education, I chose to enter the field of education policy NOT primarily in order to further the aims and viability of Catholic schools, but rather to be part of the contingent of people really pushing for greater justice within the educational system at large. My general passion is for children, particularly poor and minority (be they Catholic or non-Catholic) who daily suffer the injustice of low quality education. My concern is for kids who attend schools that are at best places to go to get off the streets and at worst just as dangerous as the neighborhoods from which they come. I have recently been researching some Chicago public school data (not to point fingers; this just happens to be the data I have been researching) and while I am fully aware of all of the difficulties inherent in using testing data – particularly as a snapshot and in the aggregate – to measure performance, I ran across some such data that was truly horrifying. More or less randomly, I encountered multiple public high schools in which only 15% or 20% of students met state testing standards in reading and math. Regardless of what the specific standards are, this means that a majority of those students will leave school not knowing how to read or perform calculations at even the most basic of levels. It literally turns my stomach that there are hundreds of youth, still children really, who are going to leave school unequipped with even the basic level of skills with which to survive in our society, much less having the opportunity to thrive in our knowledge economy. For those schools to even be called schools is to me a crime against humanity, specifically that of the children they purport to serve. (Note: I understand/believe that in many places, schools are called upon to do far too much; essentially to function in dysfunctional communities. That is a topic for another post. For now, let us just consider it at the very least a crime of our society against a portion of itself that we allow schools like this to exist.)
The fact is that there are schools that do succeed with poor and minority kids: some charter, some private, some Catholic, some public. I believe that schools that do succeed in this area MUST be rewarded. Perhaps any school that meets certain academic standards and brings poor and minority children up to grade level (or beyond) could receive some amount of funding… and those schools, of all kinds, that are serving their student populations the worst, can be closed and their funding redirected.
I know that the issue of church/state separation is not trivial, do not consider it so myself. But there must be a way to create standards by which as long as certain ideals are upheld (and others explicitly not proffered), and as long as all publicly funded schools share some common ways of measuring success, we can begin to better sustain schools like those inner-city Catholic schools that have historically maintained that poor immigrant and brown children CAN learn, and have a system already in place for ensuring that they do.
At the end of the day, we really need to increase the urgency of this issue. I do not know or really care to know what political label to place upon my viewpoints, but I do know that as a new mother, my little family’s near limitless freedom of educational opportunity is very clear and extremely valuable to me. Also crystal clear is the fact that nothing is as important to me as ensuring that my daughter will be safe, happy, and loved by all to whose care she is entrusted; and that every possible opportunity be available to her. Every child deserves all of those things. I know that “my people” as a whole still fail to secure these very basic human necessities at far too great a rate. We know how important education is in improving quality of life along every dimension. We just need to work harder, more quickly, and with greater passion to extend access to quality schools to those who need it the most.