‘Gloom, despair, and agony on me,” Buck Owens and Roy Clark used to sing. One could be forgiven for assuming that the sad sages of Hee Haw were wailing about education policy in America. Bad news, dispiriting trends, cringe-inducing venality, and flat-out stupidity are not only easy to find, they seem impossible to avoid.
When it comes to America’s Catholic schools, it’s also tempting to focus on the negative. More than 1,600 parochial schools have been closed or consolidated during the past two decades. Those that survive struggle to pay decent, let alone competitive, salaries. Administrators often lack the experience and training to navigate daunting bureaucratic mazes, raise money creatively, or invest strategically. Innovative policy experiments that might help these schools and their students, like school vouchers and tuition-tax credits, are resisted at every turn by powerful special interests.
All that said, sometimes there’s good news: This summer, the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education turned 15. For those of us who care about educational opportunity, are committed to religious freedom, and find hope in the example and service of selfless teachers, the A.C.E. anniversary is a cause and occasion for celebration. As President Bush observed, at last spring’s White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools, A.C.E. is a key player and a hopeful sign in the ongoing struggle with one of our “greatest civil rights challenges,” namely, “providing a sound education for every child.”
A.C.E. is a two-year service through teaching program placing recent college graduates as classroom teachers in under-resourced Catholic schools. It was founded at Notre Dame in 1993, after it was noticed that many of the University’s most talented and idealistic graduates were signing on with Teach for America. At a time when many Catholic schools, especially in low-income and rural areas, were struggling, it seemed to Fr. Tim Scully and others that perhaps these students’ gifts and generosity could be directed toward saving and strengthening them. Around campus, a flier went up: “Tired of getting homework? Then give some! Become an A.C.E. teacher.”
The response was overwhelming. In the first year, A.C.E. placed 40 teachers; in the second year, the number doubled. By 1997, A.C.E. was the single largest employer of Notre Dame graduates.
Today, there are about 30 A.C.E. communities — groups of teachers, united by their committed to education and Christian formation, living and learning together — in about 30 Catholic dioceses. More than 1,000 young men and women have worked through, and been formed by, A.C.E., and 70 percent of them are still professionally involved in education. As President Bush noted at the White House Summit, “it turns out that when you get a taste for being a teacher, . . . you tend to stay.”
What started as a single teacher-training program at a single University has not only been replicated at 15 other Catholic universities and colleges but has also produced a leadership-training program for Catholic-school administrators and principals, a consulting enterprise that assists schools and dioceses in planning and operations, and a Christian lay movement of former A.C.E. teachers who are eager to continue reflecting on the spiritual dimension of the vocation to teaching.
Should non-Catholics care? Sure, the success of A.C.E. might prove a consolation in these hard times for fans of the Fighting Irish, but does it really matter?
It does. It is worth remembering that, despite the closings and declining enrollments, America’s Catholic schools make up the largest private-education system in the world. These schools are, as the Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, observed recently, not just a crucial component of the Church’s own mission, but also — for all that they do and have done for so many — a “national treasure.” Millions of American children — often the poor, immigrants, and minorities — have been formed, educated, and inspired by Catholic schools. Today, these schools and their teachers do heroic work in providing education, hope, safety, opportunity and values to vulnerable and marginalized children of all religions, ethnicities and backgrounds.
Often in the face of bias and bigotry, Catholic schools have, over the last century-and-a-half, relieved the state of enormous financial burdens while conferring on the political community immeasurable civic benefits. Indeed, America’s Catholic schools represent perhaps one of the most dramatic donations of time, talent, and treasure to the political community’s common good that the nation has ever seen. (Some day, when a politician complains about school-voucher programs take away “public” money for “private” schools, I’d like a bishop to present that politician with a bill for services rendered.)
We hear a lot these days about “social capital,” and about the anchoring institutions that are so important to the health of communities and the formation of character. It is important to a free society that non-government institutions thrive. Such institutions enrich and diversify what we call “civil society.” They are like bridges and buffers that mediate between the individual and the state. They are the necessary infrastructure for communities and relationships in which loyalties and values are formed and passed on and where persons develop and flourish. In our history, few institutions have played this role like Catholic schools.
At the White House Summit, Fr. Scully concluded his remarks about A.C.E. with this:
In the end, the crisis we currently face is a crisis of imagination and of will — and that’s good news, for we lack neither. Together, we cannot and will not fail. We know the dark statistics and the gloomy trends — it’s important we know them if we’re going to right them. But let us not get so used to looking at the darkness that we allow it to cover up the light: signs of hope abound if we have the imagination and will to see them.
Amen, and ad multos annos.
— Richard W. Garnett is a professor of law at Notre Dame.