Politics & Policy

Save the Schools

The new civil-rights movement.

Editor’s note: This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.

How does an old, establishment, white-guy Republican beat Sen. Barack Obama, the messianic black candidate for “change”? By leading a civil-rights movement.

President George W. Bush laid some of the groundwork at the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools on April 24.

At the summit, held at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., President Bush said “providing a sound education for every child is one of the really important challenges for America.” The president continued: “I happen to believe it is one of the greatest civil-rights challenges. I am fully aware that in inner-city America some children are getting a good education, but a lot are consigned to inadequate schools.”

And faith-based schools, which uplift families in poor communities with a fraction of the resources public schools have at their disposal (their big advantage being discipline — and, yes, faith), are key to getting many children the education they need and deserve. While touting progress made in public education in his home state of Texas while he was governor, and across the U.S. since No Child Left Behind was passed, the president highlighted that “Today, nearly one-half of children in America’s major urban school districts do not graduate on time — one-half of our children in major urban school districts do not get out of school on time. In Detroit, one student in four makes it out of the public-school system with a diploma. When schools like these fail our inner-city children, it is unfair, it’s unacceptable, and it is unsustainable for our country.”

That’s why this self-described compassionate conservative used his bully pulpit to provide a platform for a national conversation on saving faith-based education in the U.S. You’ve no doubt heard about Catholic school closings. According to the White House, between 2000 and 2006, almost 1,200 faith-based schools closed in America’s inner cities. The closings have thus far affected nearly 400,000 students. At the summit, President Bush observed of this “crisis”: “The impact of school closings extends far beyond the children that have to leave these classrooms. The closings place an added burden on inner-city public schools that are struggling. And these school closings impoverish our country by really denying a future of children a critical source of learning not only about how to read and write, but about social justice.”

So what to do? The summit was designed to put a national spotlight on innovative approaches to keep faith-based education alive and strong. Philanthropy will remain essential. The Catholic archdiocese of Memphis was able to reopen shuttered schools with the help of $15 million in private funding. Ten years after seeking to reclaim a stake in the communities they were forced to abandon for financial reasons, “Jubilee” schools bring the total of archdiocese-run schools to 29 — up from 16. In these new schools, 96 percent of the families are at or below poverty level.

Other efforts, public and private, can also work to save these effective schools. Notre Dame provides an example on how universities can apply their intellectual resources to serve elementary and secondary education, through their teacher- and principal-training program, the Alliance for Catholic Education. Another summit speaker, author Lawrence Weinberg, went through possibilities for religious charter schools: You can’t explicitly endorse a religion there, but you can accommodate religion with government funds. That may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s another creative approach to solving a real problem.

Research and test scores show religious-school students outperforming public-school students and overcoming achievement gaps in low-income neighborhoods — despite their dearth of resources, often only a third of public-school per-pupil spending. William Jeynes, a professor of education at Baylor University, focused on how faith-based schools reduce socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps, suggesting that what they do for children is not only something to support and protect, but something public schools should emulate.

And Catholic schools — the biggest part of the faith-based-school pie — are not only changing the lives of Catholic children and families. Eighty-one percent of the students served by the Memphis Jubilee schools are not Catholic. In the U.S. overall since 1970, the number of minority students in Catholic schools have increased by 250 percent, and the number of non-Catholics by more than 500 percent, according to the White House. At the summit, Joseph P. Viteritti, an urban studies professor at Hunter College, quoted an oft-used mission line for Catholic educators: “We don’t educate poor children because they are Catholic; we educate them because we are Catholic.” The good these schools do for disadvantaged students should outweigh any “wall of separation” concerns. As President Bush stressed at the summit: “That’s what we ought to be focused on: how to get people a great education.”

As Bush demonstrates, the commander-in-chief has the capacity to take the lead in battles for freedom right here at home. By hosting and speaking at this D.C. summit, talking about school choice and faith-based education as being at the heart of our modern-day civil-rights movement, Bush sent a powerful message. Yes, the president has concrete policy proposals to help end the crisis in Catholic education — his Pell Grants for Kids being the most notable — but in this case, the bully pulpit might accomplish more. The summit set the stage for the congressional debate on the future of Opportunity Scholarships in the District of Columbia. It also provided Americans with a reminder that the party of Lincoln still believes in freedom of opportunity.

Simultaneous to the summit, Republican presumptive presidential nominee John McCain was on his “It’s Time for Action Tour,” visiting America’s “forgotten places.” On the very day Bush addressed the summit, McCain toured Louisiana’s Xavier University, the only predominantly black Catholic university in the country. This could be the start of something. Throughout the week, starting in Selma and talking about poverty in America, there was something missing: McCain could have picked up the mantle of a modern-day civil-rights leader.

McCain’s presumptive opponent, Barack Obama, is not talking about real solutions that could lift poor Americans out of a cycle of dependency. Faith-based — often Catholic — schools offer hope to the inner-city. They change lives. Talking about these schools could further distinguish McCain from his opponent — a conventional liberal propping up a preacher of hate, and spouting that same old backward song of despondent dependency. Sen. McCain, follow the lead of the civil-rights leader of your party, and become a hero in today’s civil-rights battle.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

© 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.


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