Educational Justice for All
From childhood, most of us have proudly recited the Pledge of Allegiance with its concluding, hopeful words, “one nation—under God—indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Almost 225 years ago, our nation was conceived and came to birth as a place wherein all people could exercise their basic human rights in an atmosphere of freedom. Among these rights is equal access to educational opportunities and resources so that each person can fully develop his or her potential. Our nation's public school system was established to defend and promote quality education for all persons. It has provided generations of young people with the intellectual and social skills needed for just employment in the marketplace and success in higher education and the professions.
Our nation and our state are rightfully proud of the many achievements of public education. Yet, despite the vigilant efforts of teachers and administrators, students and parents, advocacy groups and government leaders, our public system of education has not always been able to meet all the unique and varied needs of our vast and diverse population. From the beginning of our nation's history, many parents have chosen private schooling of various kinds, including home schooling. Over the generations, still others concerned about imparting religious and moral values for their children have preferred a religious setting for education. Believers and non-believers alike have freely given large sums of personal resources to many types of private schools because they were convinced that such schools were the best option available for their children.
For two centuries, thousands and thousands of parents and families have supported two tracks of educational opportunities—public schools financed through public taxes and private schools supported by individuals and various religious denominations.
Those choosing private education have had to pay twice.
For many years, thousands of families have been paying tax dollars for benefits that justly belong to all citizens. People reasoned that if you want something different from the state-sponsored system, then you must shoulder the cost of public education and the cost entailed by your free choice. This situation has continued with more or less success (and more or less equity) until recent months and years.
As costs of education and taxes alike have escalated, more and more people of diverse backgrounds have begun to ask some hard questions:
- Education is necessary for a productive and a responsible life. Since parents and/or custodians are the primary educators of their children, do they not have a right to the widest possible spectrum of school choice? Since all future opportunities for successful employment depend on a solid educational foundation, should not all people have equal access to a quality education?
- Not everyone has a genuine choice. Even with many funding assistance programs in place, thousands of economically disadvantaged parents and families cannot afford the option of private schooling. Is this situation just?
- Charter schools have opened new possibilities for many students and their families, but they are still public schools and their success has yet to be adequately measured. Since charter schools have opened the door to changes in use of public tax dollars for education, why not take the next step forward and allow all parents and guardians a full spectrum of choice—public or private schooling—all supported by tax dollars?
- In our state right now, 20–30 school districts are not performing to acceptable levels of academic achievement. These school districts are in the geographic areas where some of the economically disadvantaged reside.
Education is the way out of poverty.
Instead of focusing on the real issue—quality education for every child—we allow ourselves to become enmeshed in political questions. Should we not focus first and foremost on the children and their unique needs? Does our government not have a special responsibility to care for those who are most in need?
Catholic schools in our state of Michigan save taxpayers more than $570 million annually as they educate 95,000 children; of that number, 16 percent are not Catholic. Along with hundreds of other private schools, they are serving the common good without any financial relief from the state. Is it just and adequate to expect religious groups, corporations, and individuals to pay twice? Is it just to deny families who are most economically disadvantaged the same opportunity to choose what the rest of us enjoy?
We, the Bishops in the State of Michigan, hereby go on record with our support for amending the Michigan State Constitution to allow for the possibility of financial assistance, or vouchers, for parents who choose the option of a private school.
- Experience shows that healthy competition strengthens both the public and private schools because student performance has been enhanced, and costs have been reduced.
- Vouchers will not necessarily be a whole new precedent. The State already supports private pre-schools and private colleges with voucher-like funds. Only K–12 is omitted.
- Tax-supported school choice does not violate the separation of church and state because the voucher is given to the parents and not to an organized religion. Tax support would not necessarily lead to state interference in the curriculum. Nor would public tax support translate into state support for one particular religion.
It is a matter of parents and children having the best possible opportunities.
We believe our primary focus should be on the children and what is best for their future. We think first and foremost of children and families who are economically disadvantaged. Secondly, we need to strengthen the right of parents in choosing what they deem best for their children. The role of the state is to support parents in their decision-making. In choosing the school best suited for them, families will be strengthened and empowered, and students will have new reasons to invest themselves in their own educational development.
Justice for all requires equal access to all the means of personal growth and development, especially access to quality education which is the first and most necessary building block of a just society. Expanding educational choice is not an option; it is a requirement of social justice. Expanding educational choice will mean improved public schools and enhanced options for all young people and families, especially those most in need of a just beginning for their life journey.
Every new beginning stirs hopes and dreams within our minds and hearts. The start of a new century and a new millennium offers us a special opportunity to work for greater justice in educational choice for all citizens of our state, especially those who are most economically disadvantaged.
We, the Roman Catholic Bishops of the seven dioceses of Michigan, wish to share with you our perspective on the critical importance of educational justice for all. Equal access to quality education is essential if we are going to build a more just society.
As we begin this new millennium, not all children and parents have the same freedom of choice regarding educational possibilities. Ironically, those most in need are very likely the ones without options except for the public school system. As we look to the November 2000 election and beyond, we wish to offer our insights and perspective to all the citizens of our state, as well as our Catholic brothers and sisters.
In this series of three messages, A Just Beginning For All, we wish to make our voices and values heard in the public debate on the possibility of changing our State Constitution to allow for vouchers which would permit parents to choose the best possible education for their particular needs.
In our first message, we focus on Educational Justice For All. Our second message, due in mid-summer, will address parental choice. In early fall, our third message will consider civil rights in education and the common good.
While educational justice is complex, with many perspectives, nonetheless, our commitment to justice for all is not an option. Expanding parental choice in education is a matter of social justice, affirming the rights of all! Respecting and valuing our electoral process, we hope and pray that these three messages will help all of us better understand the unique opportunity we have at this moment of history to create A Just Beginning For All.
- 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