I admit that I grumble a little when I sign the monthly parish check to support the local Catholic school. It’s for a lot of money—thousands of dollars—and I always think of it as a drain with little gain. Being fortunate to live in a town with an excellent public-school system, I can count on two hands the number of parish children who are enrolled in the Catholic school. It’s a fine place too, but it can’t really compare with what the local public school offers when it comes to music, art, sports, and special education.
What does it offer? What distinguishes it from the public school next door? In its advertising, the school professes to integrate gospel values with the academic and cultural lives of its students. Its website boasts about many extracurricular activities like choir, Scouting, bowling, and basketball, but curiously nothing related to Scripture study or Catholic social concerns and outreach. Sure, I know they have a religion class every day and a school Mass once a month. Yet I also know that, for the most part, the teachers are fresh out college and have no formal religious or even teacher training. As a matter of fact, some of the volunteers who teach religious education in our parish have had more advanced study in Scripture and Catholic moral teaching than some of these parochial-school teachers. As a result, at our local Catholic school the children are taught solely from a standard-issue textbook with the teacher often learning right along with them. Mass is less a contemporary expression of prayer and more a repetition of what Sr. Mary Glen was doing back in 1977, complete with tired processional banners studded with doves made of white felt and bowls of symbolic rice in the offertory.
My intention is not to bash Catholic education. I have enjoyed and reaped the benefits of many, many years of it. But that was back when Catholic schools were firmly connected to the parish. Now, at a time when most schools are regionalized and serving larger geographic areas, I think it might be a good idea to take another look at how so many dioceses structure their educational system. What works in one town might not work in another. Where there is a well-financed and strong public-education system in place, Catholic schools are finding it harder to compete for the students they need to remain solvent. In those places, wouldn’t it make more sense to redirect energy and resources back into parish religious-education programs? Isn’t the parish the best place to assist parents and families with “integrating gospel values” that are, first and foremost, learned in the home?
If that happened, church financial support and other resources could be focused on Catholic schools located in towns where public education is inadequate. Those schools might then serve a new and wonderful purpose by offering a genuine alternative educational experience affordable to all. I realize this would require a potentially disruptive change in the mission of suburban Catholic education, especially in schools where the majority of the students are not in fact Catholic. The school would be less about preparing a second-grader for First Communion (which is a parish responsibility anyway) and more about providing high-quality education to all who seek it, regardless of religious affiliation. What fascinating and exciting work could be done in a school like that, from nurturing a deeper understanding of common values and beliefs to shaping powerful interfaith prayer experiences.
Wouldn’t such a school be a powerful way to promote and build the kingdom? Supporting a program like that would be well worth writing out that monthly parish check.