The Catholic schools take up the challenge

September 11, 1996|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- How do they get away with it? How do leading Democratic politicians like President Clinton and Vice President Gore send their own children to private schools, vote against every effort to offer school choice to poor children, and still get credit for being champions of the less fortunate?

Cynics might be inclined to notice that among the most solid constituencies of the Democratic Party are the teachers unions that are ferociously committed to the educational status quo. (Though not for their own children. Majorities of teachers in large cities send their own kids to private school.)

According to the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, the National // Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers donated 99 percent and 98 percent respectively of their political-action contributions to Democratic candidates in the past year. The teachers unions have battled vehemently against reforms like school choice -- and have often succeeded in convincing voters that the plan would disadvantage the poorest kids.

But this week in New York, we are witnessing a delicious put-up-or-shut-up moment.

The lowest 5 percent

About five years ago at a public forum, AFT president Albert Shanker challenged the Roman Catholic schools to educate the lowest 5 percent of public-school students. Dr. Catherine Hickey, superintendent of the archdiocese schools, who happened to be in the audience, stood up during question-and-answer time and said, ''On behalf of the cardinal and the archdiocese, I accept.''

For several years, nothing happened. But last summer, the City Journal published an essay about the success of Catholic schools that was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal, and the matter of the cardinal's offer was circulated again.

This time, Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, facing an overcrowding crisis in the public education system, said he'd be interested in pursuing the offer.

The educrats and their allies in the press are aghast. ''The proposal itself,'' intoned the New York Times story on the matter (note, not an editorial), ''raised serious questions about the separation of church and state.''

Carol A. Gresser, a member of the school board told the Times that ''There are so many conflicts that would have to be resolved before we could move forward on that one.'' Schools chancellor Rudy Crew contributed the haw to Ms. Gresser's hem: ''I think that we've got to be a little bit careful about the sort of glitz of all this. This isn't a betting game in which we ultimately try to have one institution pitted against the other.''

Fear of success

Translation: They are terrified that the Catholic schools will succeed -- as they have been succeeding for years. The Catholic school system has been a standing rebuke to the public-education behemoth for years, turning out graduates who can actually read, write and figure, and they do it inexpensively. The per-pupil expenditure of the Catholic system is $2,500 per year. The public schools spend three times that amount.

The standard riposte of public-education advocates has always been the same: ''You succeed because you can choose your students. If a child doesn't make it in Catholic school, you can send him back to us. We have to keep him.'' That was the gravamen of Albert Shanker's taunt.

The archdiocese is challenging that assumption. It already educates children from the poorest and roughest neighborhoods New York. Fifty percent of the children who attend the Catholic schools in inner-city neighborhoods are not Catholic. And as many as 80 percent to 100 percent in some neighborhoods are non-white.

In his City Journal essay, Sol Stern quotes a 1993 New York

State Department of Education report that compared schools with the highest levels of minority enrollment. Catholic schools outperformed public schools in reading, math and writing.

A RAND Corp. study found that only 25 percent of public high school students graduated and only 16 percent took the SAT. Among students in the Catholic system, 95 percent graduated and 75 percent took the SAT. The Catholic student average SAT was 815. The public average was 642.

Get ready for the constitutional objections. We're going to hear dire warnings about breaching separation of you know what -- because the truth is that the education establishment cannot stand the possibility of a true test.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/11/96

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