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What does it mean to be a Catholic school?  A few weeks ago the New Jersey Assembly advanced a bill that should cause pause for supporters of Catholic schools to evaluate the implications of their responses.  The bill (A2806) would allow hundreds of high-performing private and parochial schools in failing districts to convert to charter schools as long as they remove religious teachings and symbolism from curricula and facilities.  The author of this news report wrote that the bill had support from lawmakers and Gov. Chris Christie, but that it was “opposed by the Catholic [C]hurch, an organization the bill stands to help.”  He concluded that the bill, if enacted, would help the Catholic Church because “[d]eclining enrollment has led the state’s parochial schools to close in record numbers over the past decade, and the bill aims to alleviate that shortage. Many families that pull students from parochial schools do so because they can no longer afford the tuition.”  His rationale is that if tuition is no longer a barrier, more students will be in these schools, which will lead to greater resources for the schools, and therefore the Catholic schools stand to benefit.  What’s the issue then?  Well, everything really…particularly that the identity of these Catholic schools would be fundamentally undermined.  I’m fearful that others – including supporters of Catholic education – would find this logic appealing.  And it is for those who already value a Catholic school education that this message is directed.  I am “preaching to the believers” in this case.

At the core of a Catholic school’s mission is educating the entire person.  If a Catholic school is effective at fulfilling its mission, students will not only undergo a transformation in their ability to think critically, write succinctly, and speak articulately, but they will also have spent time discerning their vocations (i.e., where their God-given talents meet the world’s needs) and exploring their faith in a meaningful way.  Just as we acknowledge that students’ minds should be educated, so too should their hearts.  Equipping students with the prerequisite analytical skills to effect societal change is not the only element of effective teaching.  Exposing students to the ills that plague society and moving their hearts to unceasingly yearn for justice is another crucial aspect.  Could we even ask for a better context to do so than in that of the Christian faith – one whose central figure is a man who not only dwelled among the poor and downtrodden but emphasized that we are judged by our treatment of these groups?  Advocates of Catholic schools desire students to depart, much like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, with their hearts set on fire.  The hope, then, is that they will use this fire kindling within them to go forth, do good, and set the world aflame.  How then could it possibly be in the best interest of these schools to prohibit discussion of the Holy Spirit’s presence working in their midst?  For those who really value the integral role that Catholic schools can play, increasing enrollment at the sake of sacrificing identity cannot even be considered a trade-off.  It’s an admission of defeat, conceding that Catholic schools are not worth fighting for.

Some contend that lessons in character-building can still be taught without explicitly using religion as the vehicle.  The religious symbols – the crucifixes in the classrooms, the statue of Mary in the hallway, the quotes from Scripture painted on the walls – do not confer knowledge.  Plus, the same teachers will be teaching in the same building in the same classrooms.  Surely the schools can find a way to have the same success, right?  Unfortunately, the schools’ culture would be so radically changed that the schools would no longer resemble what they once did, schools with conditions that enabled them to achieve their institutional missions.  This realization is absolutely crucial for true Catholic school advocates.  How can a “charter” Catholic school serve the same function as an actual Catholic school if the person whose life (and death…and resurrection) is the sole reason for the existence of the school cannot be discussed?  Imagine if a public school, like say Henry Harris in Bayonne, New Jersey, was entirely forbidden from mentioning Henry Harris.  That would be ludicrous.  It’s the same thing with truly Catholic schools…except that if Henry Harris didn’t live, that school would still exist just with a different name.  If Jesus didn’t live, that Catholic school would not be there.

From August 2009-May 2011, I taught at Resurrection Catholic School in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  If I were to ask students to name a few of the sources of greatest growth for them during the past school year, undoubtedly a high number would cite their class retreats as one of those causes.  For some others, weekly prayer group meetings were another source of individual and collective growth.  I know how important they were because students would regularly tell me.  And this isn’t unique to a small school along the Gulf Coast.  It was the exact same way when I was a high school student at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Catholic schools are going away; sadly, there is no disputing this fact.  Legislation that makes it easier for these schools to disappear needs to be vociferously opposed by supporters of Catholic education.  If a person holds the conviction that Catholic schools serve the common good, passive acceptance of Catholic schools’ demise is simply unacceptable.  In the end, it is a matter of whether or not people are willing to commit to sustaining a school system that provides concrete opportunities for the entire person to be educated.