Of the many parallels between Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy, one has eluded all coverage: Both attended Catholic school as children. In fact, while JFK may have been the Irish Catholic from Boston, he spent less time at the Canterbury School in Connecticut than did young Barry (as he was then called) at St. Francis of Assisi in Indonesia.
At a time when America’s 6,165 Catholic elementary and 1,213 secondary schools are celebrating Catholic Schools Week, President Obama’s first-hand experience here opens the door to a provocative opportunity. In his inaugural address, the president rightly scored a U.S. school system that “fail[s] too many” of our young people. How refreshing it would be if he followed up by giving voice to a corollary truth: For tens of thousands of inner-city families, the local parochial school is often the only lifeline of hope.
“When an inner-city public school does what most Catholic schools do every day, it makes the headlines,” says Patrick J. McCloskey, author of a new book called “The Street Stops Here,” about the year he spent at Rice High — an Irish Christian Brothers school in Harlem. “President Obama has a chance to rise above the ideological divide simply by giving credit where credit is due, by focusing on results, and the reason for those results.”
You could argue that Mr. Obama is halfway there. In “The Audacity of Hope,” he states that disagreements over public funding often cloud all other judgments. “Our debate on education,” he wrote, “seems stuck between those who want to dismantle the public school system and those who would defend an indefensible status quo, between those who say money makes no difference in education and those who want more money without any demonstration that it will be put to good use.”
Put funding issues aside, however, and the results speak for themselves. A New York University study of the city’s schools showed that Catholic school children do better on tests — and the longer they spend in Catholic school, the more they out-achieve their public school counterparts. A more recent study in Los Angeles by Loyola Marymount’s School of Education found that poor and marginalized students attending Catholic schools have remarkably higher retention and graduation rates than their peers in public schools.
Apologists for the “indefensible status quo” make all sorts of excuses for why this is so. But the most significant reason for the success of a school like Rice is also the most obvious. Teachers and principals at Catholic schools enforce high standards because they know the price of accepting excuses will be paid by the kids who walk through their classroom doors: lives lived on the margins of the American Dream.
Unfortunately, America’s Catholic schools are in the midst of a crisis that has its roots in the loss of the nuns, priests and brothers who once supplied these schools with low-cost teachers. Catholic school enrollment today is less than half what it was at its peak of more than five million, back when JFK was president. Thus inner-city Catholic schools have almost the opposite problem of their public counterparts: Though doing a heroic job, they are closing their doors at an alarming rate.
Now, Catholic schools are not for everyone, and they are not the answer for all that plagues our cities. But they are an answer — one answer that is real, less costly, and working for many families desperate for the opportunities these schools provide. With a little imagination, these schools could reach many more such children.
Here is where the president could provide a huge lift. The elephant in the room of education reform is this: No matter how much a white Republican leader may be committed to inner-city school reform, support from a black Democrat will always have more of an impact.
This doesn’t mean that Mr. Obama must embrace vouchers. Given the dynamic of his party, that would be expecting too much. And a president can’t institute vouchers anyway, except in limited ways. However, simply by acknowledging Catholic schools as a national treasure that should be preserved, Mr. Obama would give them a badly needed shot in the arm.
Bishops wondering about devoting so many of their scarce resources to people who are largely non-Catholic would be encouraged to work harder to keep their schools open. Business leaders who donate millions to support change in our public schools might devote at least some of these dollars to places that are already working. And good men and women who make it their mission to teach children others have given up on would be inspired to keep going.
Mr. McCloskey sums it up well. “The Catholic schools are supplying hope,” he says. “They could use a little help with the audacity.”