Catholic Educational Renaissance
One online school is an auspicious start, but a nationwide network of publicly sanctioned Catholic schools may be exactly what our country needs.
In America, there is one type of school your child can attend, that is, a religious school. The question, however, is whether your child will attend a private, Christian school, or a publicly funded, liberal school. Fortunately, the days of a falsely neutral approach to the role of religion in public education appear to be over. The state of Oklahoma recently approved a measure that may resurrect the traditional American understanding of the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, while paving the way for the publicly sanctioned Catholic education that postliberals seek.
The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved an online charter school, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, which is to be operated by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa, and will be in-part funded by the state government. Rather than undermining a mythologized conception of American history and its chronically misunderstood “wall between Church and State,” the existence of such a Catholic charter school should encourage those eager for a publicly prominent style of education better positioned to produce a virtuous citizenry concerned with the common good. Publicly funded religious charter schools are at least arguably more in keeping with the American tradition of religious education than the false neutrality formulated by left and right liberals alike. With the demise of anti-Catholic Blaine amendments (which prohibited funding for Catholic schools) and the current composition of the Supreme Court, publicly promoted Catholic education, in particular, is now possible to a greater extent than it was previously in American history.
The precise intended meanings of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses are still debated between right and left liberals today. Nevertheless, America’s history and tradition with regard to the sanction of public religious education — even Catholic religious education, despite our country’s profound Protestant inheritance and story of anti-Catholic sentiment — indicate that these rights and protections were long understood to be compatible with a functionally Christian culture.
The conflict in nineteenth century America over the role of religion in public schools was primarily a product of tensions between Catholics and Protestants, not of a sense that government funds had unduly “clothed a Christian institution with state authority.” Protestant activists hoped that the presence of avowedly Protestant Bibles and prayers in public schools would decatholicize Catholic children. Catholics, as well some other Christians and Jews, responded by founding parochial schools. The Blaine Amendment, proposed by Representative James G. Blaine, would have amended the Constitution to prohibit the public funding of such parochial schools in a move born of anti-Catholic nativism — not anti-religious bias or a sincere belief that the Constitution prohibited public funding of parochial schools. The vast majority of state legislatures passed similar “Blaine” amendments to their state constitutions that did just this — again, often owing to anti-Catholic bias rather than principled objections to religious influences in public schools.
Recently, the comparatively conservative Supreme Court has been willing to strike down Blaine amendments. In so doing, the court has restored an understanding of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses that, even if relatively restrained from the postliberal perspective, does not place liberal education on a pedestal. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020), the Supreme Court struck down Montana’s Blaine amendment by ruling that a state scholarship program that provides public funds to students to attend private schools cannot discriminate against religious schools. In the follow-up case Carzon v. Makin (2022), the Court rightfully ruled that Maine’s restriction on the use of publicly-funded school vouchers for religious private schools — and only religious private schools — was unconstitutional on the grounds that such a policy ran afoul of the Free Exercise Clause.
The granting of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School’s charter is a victory that ought to be celebrated, but this is only the beginning. Other dioceses and archdioceses across the country should follow Oklahoma’s lead by recognizing the important differences that a distinctly religious education brings, and that temporal political power can be justly wielded in matters as important as education. A virtual Catholic charter school is far better than none at all, but the next step for Catholics must be to establish similar brick and mortar schools. The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which Catholics — and people of many other religious faiths — were forced to attend “virtual Mass,” while bars and strip clubs were left open, reinforced the importance of in-person worship. As an incarnate faith, Catholicism can be better served through incarnate education. In-person education is preferable to virtual schooling when it comes to inculcating the importance of civic engagement, community, discipline, and ritual that are central to Catholic teaching. Thus, publicly funded schools of this distinctly Catholic nature must be established everywhere.
Even when religion played a prominent role in American education, Catholic education was castigated. This time is different. Schools like St. Isidore can make this the moment of Catholic education, instilling a new generation with the Truth and beauty of salvation. With approximately twenty-five percent of Americans considering themselves Catholics, the greatest number of any single Christian denomination in the country, this moment in American history is uniquely suited to show that Catholicism can cure modernity’s maladies.
With the liberal shackles that elevated “secular” schools above their religious counterparts severed, Catholics around the country can go on offense instead of defense with respect to education. As of the 2019-2020 school year, there are charter schools in every U.S. state. There is also a “universal school choice revolution” taking place in conservative states across the country to give families and parents a greater say in the content and values of their children’s education. Catholic education can be at the forefront of it. However, instead of waiting to be given the “choice,” we can build these schools with our own political will. Soon, there can be publicly funded Catholic schools in every state. After the Supreme Court’s recent rulings, more families should be able to take advantage of publicly funded religious, specifically Catholic, schools. If the momentum is seized, then this can truly become the Catholic educational renaissance. This is not to neglect the need to return not only the Bible, but Christianity, to all educational institutions, public or private.
David French, the current in-house “conservative” at the The New York Times, placed the development in Oklahoma squarely within the liberal paradigm as a “contest between liberty and authority.” French’s claim that “Oklahoma has created and sanctioned a Catholic public school” will surely be contentiously litigated. In today’s political atmosphere — where anti-Catholic sentiment is entirely mainstream — the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School can offer a spark of hope to postliberals. Nevertheless, there is no room for complacency if the promising moment of Catholic education is to be realized. One online school is an auspicious start, but a nationwide network of publicly sanctioned Catholic schools may be exactly what our country needs.
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