Everything You Always Wanted to Know About School Choice (but were afraid to ask)
Updated: May 24, 2022
Interview with Shawn Peterson, president of Catholic Education Partners
Catholic School Playbook: We're thrilled to have you at Catholic School Playbook to discuss this very important and timely topic. We have a lot of questions! Let's jump right into it.
The education choice movement has gained incredible momentum in recent years. In fact, last year was the biggest year for education choice in American history, with 18 states enacting seven new programs and expanding 21 existing programs. Several states are considering new or expanded legislation this year. Why is education choice so popular right now?
Shawn: Four reasons. First, so many of our problems today—social, political, economic—could be fixed with better education. People know this intuitively. They know that, as a society, we are not preparing young people to flourish in their own lives and improve the world around them.
Second, we spend a lot of resources on education, especially through our tax dollars, but we’re not getting our money’s worth. How could anyone claim otherwise, when the United States ranks first in the world for education spending per student, but 9th in reading and 31st in math out of 79 countries? Of course, the assessments don’t measure aspects of students’ education that are perhaps most important to a child’s formation and future, including virtue, work ethic, attitude, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. If they did, how would America fare? Probably not well—and tracking over time would show problems have been building for decades, leaving young adults increasingly ill-prepared to govern their own lives and improve their communities. A recent Gallup poll found Americans’ dissatisfaction with “the way things are going” hit an astounding 81% in 2022.
Third, opponents of education choice claim that the path to excellence requires funneling even more taxpayer money into the current system. That’s a tough narrative to accept when some states already spend as much as $38,270 per student on K-12 education. How much more would it take to provide a “quality” education? $40,000? $50,000? $60,000? The average tuition at K-8 Catholic schools is $4,840 with better results; at Catholic high schools it is $9,480 with better results. Students in Catholic schools demonstrate higher academic achievement than their peers at government schools from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Catholic school graduates are more civically engaged, more tolerant of diverse views, more committed to service as adults, and less likely to be incarcerated, than their peers at government schools. It’s obvious to many parents and taxpayers that the biggest problem in education is not a lack of funding, but the system itself.
Finally, parents and taxpayers are taking a hard look at the system and wondering why we’re funding the brick building instead of the students in it. It is shocking that principles of good governance that serve us well in other areas have been outright rejected when it comes to our children’s education.
Consider, for example, government-funded food assistance programs, which provide benefits directly to citizens, not grocery stores, and allow citizens to shop at the grocery stores of their choice. When citizens make their choice, no one ever claims the government supports a particular grocery store just because a particular citizen uses government assistance funds to shop there. Furthermore, if we suddenly stopped the direct benefit and instead required participants to shop in government-run grocery stores, we know what would happen: costs would skyrocket, quality would decline, and consumers would be less satisfied.
Solution-minded people, who truly want children to receive the benefit of education resources, don’t think in terms of public vs. private schools. Rather, they focus like a laser beam on how to help more children. They know parents care about their children more than the government does, so they want parents—not the government—to choose their children’s schools.
Catholic School Playbook: That’s compelling—and it brings us to the reason your organization, Catholic Education Partners, exists. Because as states pass more expansive education choice programs, you are focused on preserving Catholic schools as an option for parents participating in these programs. That brings us to a foundational question about why Catholic schools exist in the first place: What is the Church’s interest in education?
Shawn: The Church's interest in education stems from her interest in the soul of the individual, human flourishing, and the common good. As with all things the Church engages in, the purpose is to help us know, love, and serve God, and lead each of us to Christ. Education is no exception. A proper Catholic education does not merely impart knowledge in preparation for a career; it teaches truth and morals and sets young people on a path to Heaven.
Catholic School Playbook: Isn’t that what CCD is for? Why do we need Catholic schools?
Shawn: CCD was designed to cover the basics of the faith for children who are not able to attend a Catholic school, and therefore do not receive daily catechetical instruction. It was never meant to replace a proper, holistic Catholic education.
Here’s an example that illustrates the inadequacy of supplemental Catholic education.
If a person striving for a healthy body eats junk food six days a week, and then also eats nutritious foods on Sunday, will he receive some benefits from his Sunday diet? Sure. Will he enjoy overall good health? Unlikely.
Catholic School Playbook: Are you saying non-Catholic schools are like junk food?
Shawn: There is an ancient Latin saying that applies here—nemo dat quod non habet—which means, “you cannot give what you do not have.” Non-Catholic schools cannot “give” the Faith to students because they do not “have” the Faith. They can’t immerse students in the intellectual and sacramental traditions of the Church—because they don’t have those traditions and cannot pass on them on. Sadly, children at non-Catholic schools miss out on many of the most important aspects of Catholic education, including Mass, religion classes, prayer with teachers and classmates, classic literature, dress codes that cultivate an appreciation for modesty, and a culture that values faith and morality.
Rather than be neutral on religion, most non-Catholic schools are hostile to the Faith. Government-funded schools (including charter schools) are forbidden by law from teaching a Catholic worldview. Because it is impossible to teach no worldview—and because they are staffed by administrators and teachers who embrace the values of the broader culture—they teach values contrary to the Faith, for example, as the Playbook provides, “that Christianity is anti-science and bigoted, that abortion is health care, that gender is independent of biological sex, and that promiscuity among all people, including children and young adults, should be encouraged.”
To answer the question head on, if our goal is to form faithful Catholics and the question is whether secular education, like junk food, fails to provide proper nourishment (for children’s minds and souls), then the answer is yes.
Catholic School Playbook: You mentioned charter schools. Don’t charter schools have the freedom to be innovative to produce better results for students? Can’t charter schools innovate by being Catholic?
Shawn: Charter schools do have a great deal of freedom in some areas, but not in many of the most essential areas, including curriculum standards, employment practices, and the teaching of faith and morals. At the end of the day, charter schools are just another government school option that conceal from children the meaning and purpose of their lives.
Some well-meaning Catholics have floated the idea of “Catholic” charter schools as a means of saving Catholic education. This idea is dangerous for two reasons: one, it redirects energy away from true education freedom policies and, two, it opens the door to a European or Canadian style system of private schools directly funded by the government. The Church in both Europe and Canada have learned the hard lesson that with government shekels, comes government shackles. Anytime you ask the government to directly fund a school—which is different than allowing parents to choose how to spend education dollars—you lose the right to be truly Catholic.
In his recent article, “How Republicans’ Fight For School Choice Has Strangled Christian Education,” Christopher Bedford sums it up well: “Charter schools may be an alternative to the public school blob, but they don’t answer to parents—they answer to whoever supplies the cash, and that’s still the government.”
Catholic School Playbook: By “true education freedom policies,” do you mean school choice? Aren’t there many types of school choice programs? Are some better than others?
Shawn: Yes, that's exactly what I mean, except "education choice" is a better description of current efforts than "school choice." The term school choice has traditionally meant picking one type of school over another. Education choice is really about putting all the options on the table for parents and that includes government school, private school, hybrid school, and homeschool. But as we are primarily concerned with Catholic education in this dialogue, I'll focus on choice programs that allow more families to access Catholic schools.
There are generally four types of private choice programs in the country: individual tax credits and deductions, tax-credit scholarships, vouchers, and education savings accounts (ESAs). Of all these programs, the one that gives parents the most freedom, is the ESA. ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds—often distributed to families via debit card—can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses, and other approved customized learning services and materials.
Catholic School Playbook: Could you provide an example of an ESA?
Shawn: West Virginia’s Hope Scholarship, which Catholic Education Partners helped develop in 2021, is an ESA. This new statewide program is a game changer for West Virginia families—who now receive $4,600 per year, per child, to use for a variety of education expenses, including private school tuition—and West Virginia Catholic schools, which are expected to receive $20 to $25 million per year from parents exercising control over their children’s education. The program is truly universal. In recognition of the right of all parents to choose their children's education, it is available to all families regardless of income level.
Catholic School Playbook: Is there a danger that Catholic schools will be prohibited from receiving ESA funds, on the grounds that Catholic schools are religious and should not receive public funds?
Shawn: No and that has not been an issue in any state with an ESA so far. While opponents of choice have tried to make this an argument with every type of school choice program, they have lost on this issue time and again, and that includes most importantly at the U.S. Supreme Court. This idea that religious schools could or should be prohibited from receiving public funds was at the heart of Espinoza v. Montana (2020). In this landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state-based scholarship program that provides public funds to allow students to attend private schools cannot discriminate against religious schools under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.
A finer point, and one of the main advantages of this approach, is that ESA programs don’t directly fund schools. Rather, they create savings accounts that parents use to pay for education costs that may include religious schools. Money never passes directly to a school from the government. This protects schools from government interference.
Funding individuals, not institutions, is not a new concept. The government structures many programs this way. See the example in my answer to the first question above about government-funded food assistance programs. It’s a good parallel. No one ever claims the government supports a particular grocery store just because a particular citizen uses government assistance funds to shop there.
I should add a caveat that it is extremely important that all aspects of choice legislation are drafted properly in the first place, which is part of what Catholic Education Partners exists to do.
Catholic School Playbook: Just to clarify, government money is the people’s money; it comes from taxpayers. Without education choice, money flows from taxpayers to the government, to government schools; parents can utilize the government school in their area or opt for a private school or homeschool (but if they don’t utilize the government school, they pay tuition or other expenses on top of what they already pay in taxes). With an ESA, money flows from taxpayers to the government, to a savings account; parents use a debit card that is linked to their savings account to pay for education expenses of their choice, which includes tuition, tutoring, and other costs.
Is this correct? If so, it sounds like a responsible use of the people’s money. Why isn’t this the way education has been funded all along?
Shawn: Yes it’s correct—and it is a responsible use of the people’s money, which is why 64 percent of Americans and 78 percent of American parents support ESAs. The reason we haven’t been funding students this way all along is because, over the last 100 years, drivers of education policy have treated “public education” and “government-controlled education” as synonymous terms. They’re not.
Our society values education as a good that promotes human flourishing and a responsible citizenry. We consider education to be so important, in fact, that we universally agree that all children should receive an education. The term “public education” encapsulates efforts to advance that universal goal; it does not specify how or where children should be taught and it certainly does not exclude parents—the primary educators of their children—from being involved in these decisions. Nonetheless, proponents of government-controlled education have claimed the cause of “public education” as its own—with tremendous “success” (as measured by growth in the government education industry and infrastructure).
We need to remember there’s an enormous amount of money in “public” education. With money comes power and special interests, and those interests are generally concerned with the adults in the room, not the children. Look at almost any state in the union and you will find four things: (1) education spending is the number one or two biggest budget items; (2) the largest contributors to campaigns are teachers’ unions; (3) the largest amount of money spent on lobbying is by the groups who control government education; and (4) the beneficiaries of government largesse are adults, not children—there is no correlation between education spending and students’ academic performance.
Catholic School Playbook: How much money are we talking about?
Shawn: In 2018, state and local governments spent a combined $668 billion on K-12 education spending and if you add in what the federal government contributes that number increases to $762 billion. That's an average of $14,000 per pupil.
Catholic School Playbook: If education choice spreads, won’t government schools—and students at government schools—suffer?
Shawn: No. If education choice spreads, it will lift all students and all schools up.
Twenty-eight empirical studies have been conducted to measure the outcomes of education choice programs. Twenty-five of the 28 studies reported a positive financial impact on government schools and taxpayers; three reported the programs to be revenue neutral; not one reported a negative financial impact.
The results are not surprising. Consider what happens when parents exercise choice: some students stay at their current school and others transfer schools, with funding following the students. The adjustments provide a powerful incentive for schools to better serve their school families. This improves the quality of education across the board, which attracts better teachers and increases academic performance and family satisfaction.
Catholic School Playbook: To bring our discussion back to the Catholic faith, what guidance does the Church provide for parents and governments regarding education? Does the Church support education choice?
Shawn: Those two questions go to the very heart of the matter of the Catholic view of education and choice. They are just two sides of the same coin because if we accept the Church’s teaching on education, and the roles and responsibilities of both parent and government, you cannot help but conclude that the Church does indeed support education choice.
Perhaps the greatest signal document on Catholic education, Gravissimum Educationis makes crystal clear that parents are the primary educators of their children. And because they have the duty to provide an integral education, one that includes moral and religious formation, no one can supersede them in this responsibility.
For another source we can turn to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church which states, “parents have the rights to choose the formative tools that respond to their convictions and to seek those means that will help them best to fulfill their duty as educators, in the spiritual and religious sphere also.” Parents have the duty and a right to impart a religious education and moral formation to their children—a right the State cannot annul, but which it must respect and promote. That’s because education, properly understood, is the process of leading someone towards their ultimate purpose; it is not, as many people contend today, limited to preparation for the workforce or citizenship.
It is parents—not the state—who have been given the most profound and intimate responsibility of providing for the well-being of their children. Parents name their children, feed them, dress them, read stories to them, take them to the park, help them pick extracurricular activities, determine what television shows or movies they can and cannot watch, and help shape their friendships and relationships. Through their love, they shape their children’s identity and sense of self in an irreplaceable way. Therefore, it is parents—not the state who must play the primary role in their children’s education.
While parents are the primary educators of their kids, they need not educate them alone. Parents collaborate with academic and ecclesial entities to provide for a comprehensive education; they must not abdicate their duty or completely offload it to another. Because they have the duty to educate their children in accord with their religious convictions, they also have the right to access educational opportunities consistent with these beliefs where they exist; they must enjoy “true liberty in their choice of schools,” in the words of Gravissimum Educationis.
Correspondingly, public authorities have the duty to guarantee this right and to ensure the concrete conditions necessary for it to be exercised. It is not enough, as Gravissimum Educationis teaches, for the state to merely refrain from exercising an educational monopoly, which “is opposed to the native rights of the human person.” The state must promote conditions, so “that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children,” including, but not limited to, providing public subsidies to parents to assist toward this end. In fact, “[the] State cannot without injustice merely tolerate so-called private schools,” says the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Libertatis Conscientia. On the contrary, because private schools render a public service and contribute to the common good, they “have a right to financial assistance.”
The Church’s teaching flows logically from the Church’s fundamental understanding of the human person and the role of society. As the Second Vatican Council taught, “the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person, since the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons and not the other way around.”
Since all people are made for relationship with God, and education shapes children’s understanding of their nature and purpose in the world, the state and society must be oriented toward helping parents provide an education that leads children toward God. This necessarily includes helping families overcome financial burdens, which is why the Church supports education choice.
Catholic School Playbook: One last question. What should ordinary people be doing to support education choice?
Shawn: A great first step is signing up for Catholic Education Partners' email updates.
We've found that the more people we reach, the more popular education choice becomes among parents, taxpayers, policymakers, and public officials. Please sign up and encourage your friends and family to sign up too.
All citizens should determine whether and to what extent their state offers education choice. Currently, 32 states plus the District of Columbia offer some sort of choice program. (See Chapter 5 of the Playbook for a complete list.) Only nine states offer ESAs and eight of those fall short of the scope and level of assistance of the West Virginia plan.
In addition, all pastors, principals, and other Catholics in leadership positions should include education choice as one of the topics they educate their parent communities about. An easy way to provide general information about this important topic is by sharing a link to this article in community emails and on websites for Catholic schools, parishes, and dioceses. Leaders should also provide specific information about education choice in their state. This must include how parents can take advantage of existing programs and how they can support efforts to create new and stronger programs (for example, by demanding support for education choice by public officials and opposing candidates who oppose education choice).
Finally, all taxpayers should hold their public officials accountable. When 78 percent of American parents support ESAs, it's unacceptable that not all public officials do. With the extraordinary momentum we're seeing in education choice right now, it's more important than ever that we turn up the heat. We owe it to our children. And the Church.