Michigan Catholic Conference
(800) 395-5565
(517) 372-3940
510 S. Capitol Ave.
Lansing, MI 48933

A Just Beginning for All: Third in a Series of Messages on Education from the Bishops of Michigan

Educational Choice is a Civil Right

America is often called “the land of opportunity” for all people. In point-of-fact, however, not all people have been able to enjoy the same opportunities for life, liberty, and pursuit of justice. In the two hundred and twenty-four years of our nation's history, by dialogue and sometimes through civil strife, we have redefined and clarified what it means to provide justice for all... to be fully invested as citizens.

More and more, we have come to understand the purpose of government as providing a safety net for those least able to support themselves. Our nation's “common good” has been the result of a strong defense of individual civil rights that belong to us by virtue of our citizenship. The 13th and 14th Amendments guarantee such civil rights—the right to life, liberty, and ownership of property as well as equal protection under the law. We are convinced there is also a civil right to a quality education and the freedom necessary to pursue that education choice.

Both our faith and civil tradition testify to every person's right to a quality education. In their 1965 Declaration on Christian Education, the Council Fathers of Vatican II affirmed that all persons have an inalienable right to quality education “in virtue of their dignity as human persons.” (Article 1) Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has repeatedly affirmed access to quality education as a necessary and “first right” for all people.

Our nation's Bill of Rights implicitly affirms a right to education as part of the pursuit of life, liberty and justice.

Our nation will continue to be strong and dynamic only to the extent that every person truly enjoys full access to a quality education, one that promotes the development of the whole person—intellectually, morally, spiritually, and physically. Given the diverse needs of each person, no single model or means of education could ever adequately meet the legitimate needs of all young people and their families.

Historically, our nation has made possible a wide variety of educational opportunities. We affirm the importance of each of these types of schools—public, private, and religious. We see educational reform as sustaining and expanding this full spectrum of educational choices.

We are firmly committed to building upon our nation's historic achievement and commitment in maintaining the best possible public school system.

Clearly, public schools serve the common good by educating the majority of our population; they form the minds and hearts of young people all across our land. Seventy-five percent of our own Catholic school age children in Michigan attend public schools. A significant number of Catholic people are involved in teaching and administering public schools.

We acknowledge and affirm all those who have been part of the development of Michigan's public school system, a system to which everyone has rightful access. At the same time, we affirm the right of every citizen to a genuine choice in education. This is a right that belongs to each member of our country by virtue of citizenship.

For example, as citizens we enjoy the right to vote, to free speech, and to worship as we choose. Choice is implicit in these rights: which candidate to choose, what we choose to express, and which church we choose to attend. As it relates to education, however, that fundamental civil right to choose may be pre-empted by any number of factors, especially socio-economic status. What's left is the school system the local government provides or nothing at all. Only one choice is no choice.

From the earliest days of our country until the late 1800s, religious schools and other private schools were funded by public tax monies. In fact, prior to the 1830s, almost all schools in the United States were private or religious, and parents had the right to choose among various alternatives. The shift away from choice to mandated “public” schools happened in part because of the influence of educator Horace Mann who argued that our nation needed one common curriculum to create a unified mind-set from the diverse languages, religious traditions, and cultural backgrounds of the newly arriving immigrants.

By the mid 19th century, use of public funds for non-public education became a political issue and in 1875, the United States Congress nearly passed the so-called Blaine Amendment which would have prohibited support for any school controlled by a religious institution. The Blaine Amendment did not receive the two-thirds majority required in the United States Senate; nonetheless, about half of the states—including Michigan in 1970—eventually amended their Constitutions to embody a very restrictive approach to any public funding of religious and private schools.

Proposal 1 levels the playing field and does so by directing the funding back to parents, not to the school or school system.

Parents then are free to exercise their civil right to choose the school best suited for their child. Proposal 1 would change our State Constitution to allow for educational choice for students and their families. It strengthens teacher testing and guarantees public funding for education. The focus of the Proposal is on the kids themselves, particularly those who live in underachieving school districts.

It is our conviction that school choice is an important social justice element in the effort to achieve equity for all children in our state. School choice provides parents a realistic way to exercise their legitimate right to choose the best possible education for their children. In Michigan over the last few years we have witnessed two developments which give further evidence to the importance and popularity of educational choice—a growing interest in home schooling and the emergence of charter schools, especially in urban areas.

Financial assistance from the state to parents for education has been going on successfully and without challenge in pre-school settings and in college and universities, so why not also at the K-12 school level? The United States is the only English-speaking country in the world without assistance being made available to parents who choose a non-public school for their children.

Our Catholic Church can proudly point to its record of serving the common good by educating three million children across this country. The Church has been able to maintain Catholic schools all across our state without vouchers, often at a great personal expense on the part of parents or guardians as well as teachers and administrators. Our support for the reforms outlined in Proposal 1 is not prompted by anxiety over the financial well-being of Catholic schools.

Our motivation for educational reform springs out of a deep conviction that we need to correct long-standing injustices in educational funding by providing real opportunities for parental choice.

Broadening educational choice is a matter of justice—especially for those who do not have equal access to education opportunities. Very sadly and most frequently, those with limited educational choices are precisely the very families who most urgently need a quality education to develop their fullest potential as persons, future citizens, and leaders.

Our nation has a long history of open political debate. It is our conviction that the assuring of educational choice is rightly left up to the voters of our state. All citizens have the right and the responsibility to discuss these matters and to determine what they judge will best serve the common good.

Together, let us work to ensure that there will be educational opportunity for all! Let us work to assure that all parents have an opportunity for the best possible choice for their children! Let us make sure that we continue to enjoy the diversity we need so that all our schools—public, religious, and private—will prepare responsible citizens who will be able to contribute to the society and the work force of this new millennium!

Dear Brothers and Sisters in The Lord

As Catholic Bishops, we are conscious of our right and duty to help form the consciences of our fellow Catholics and to influence the minds and hearts of all people of good will. For that reason, we have written two messages about Proposal 1 in the last few months. This is our third and final message as we prepare to go to the polls on November 7, 2000.

We ask you to consider seriously voting “Yes” for Proposal 1, the education ballot proposal. As we see it, Proposal 1 will help improve all schools as they strive to “put kids first.” Proposal 1 would guarantee teacher excellence for all schools, protect school funding from potential future budget cuts, and most important, it would provide every child a chance to succeed through opportunity scholarships and parental choice. Your “yes” vote will be particularly significant for tens of thousands of children in school districts that are not graduating at least two-thirds of their students.

In this message we address the principle underlying Proposal 1: We maintain that “Educational Choice Is A Civil Right.” This message complements our two earlier messages, “Educational Justice for All” and “Parental Rights in Education.” Please consider our thoughts as you prepare to vote. Above all, we ask that you take the time to vote. Your decision on November 7 will affect the life and well-being of generations to come!

  • His Eminence Adam Cardinal Maida
    Archbishop of Detroit
  • Most Rev. Patrick R. Cooney
    Bishop of Gaylord
  • Most Rev. Robert J. Rose
    Bishop of Grand Rapids
  • Most Rev. James A. Murray
    Bishop of Kalamazoo
  • Most Rev. Carl F. Mengeling
    Bishop of Lansing
  • Most Rev. James H. Garland
    Bishop of Marquette
  • Most Rev. Kenneth E. Untener
    Bishop of Saginaw

Human existence cannot be silent,
nor can it be nourished by false words,
but only true words, with which men
and women transform the world.
To exist, humanly, is to name the world,
to change....Human beings are not
built in silence, but in word, in work,
in action-reflection.

Michigan Catholic Conference
(800) 395-5565
(517) 372-3940
510 South Capitol Avenue
Lansing, Michigan 48933
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