Money & schools, Catholic & otherwise

Andrew Sullivan flags this piece from Mike Dwyer, headlined “My Complicated Relationship with Catholic Education.” It’s not about what’s taught or what isn’t, or about how best to instill in children values and traditions given insufficient weight in a secular culture. Instead it’s about what many education stories seem to be about these days: Money, the divide between the educational haves and have-nots, and the emergence of a separate class of students whose parents can afford annual tuitions approaching or exceeding $20,000 per year.

The once erroneous perception that a Catholic education was only for the well-off has now become a reality. What does this mean for a faith with deep roots in the middle class? Whereas parochial schools were the norm for most Catholic children a half-century ago, will there be a day when American Catholics become sharply divided among the haves and have-nots, with a private education being the wedge? I don’t know what the future holds for us, but right now is a time of great change for Catholic education and it remains to be seen how things will play out.

Raising two children in New York City has presented no shortage of challenges when it comes to selecting how they should be schooled; cost was a significant factor but so was belief and commitment to public education, and we were lucky enough to have landed in a district that was just beginning to see big improvement when my older child entered kindergarten. Over the years we’ve made (and continue to make) significant contributions, almost entirely in time volunteered; but these days, more and more fellow parents make significant contributions in treasure, and the effect is being felt in ways that do not always comport with my sense of what public education is supposed to mean. The calving off of some public schools into de facto private collectives funded by wealthy parent-teacher associations is to me a particularly troubling trend in public education.

Friends and fellow parishioners have made other, and understandable, choices in terms of educating their children – some selecting Catholic schools and others opting for well-known prestigious non-Catholic private schools, with prices topping $30,000 a year in some cases (and even higher in others). I can’t challenge their decisions; they’ve done what they feel is best in their situations, and having gone through it myself I’m aware of the difficulty of it, the weighing of variables and the sacrifices required. But it can make for interesting conversation around the dinner table. In trying to impart to our kids a sense of being attuned to the needs and differences of others, of the importance of the lived and experienced over the purchased and "consumed," the topic of their friends’ schooling sometimes comes up. Education – public, Catholic, non-Catholic-private – as an economic marker is something that even they are becoming aware of. 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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