Private Schools, Public Education

What is the government role when private schools produce education for the public?
June 4, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

The White House convened a summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools last month to address the alarming trend that between 2000 and 2006, 1,162 faith-based schools closed their doors on 424,976 students. Given that graduation rates from urban public high schools hover at around 50 percent while graduation rates at urban Catholic schools are literally near-perfect, this loss of alternatives to the public school system has a profound impact on communities.

There are a few standard choruses that I hear from mayors time and again. The path to quality education too often leads to the suburbs. The exodus of middle-class residents from struggling cities is devastating. Cities are left with abandoned neighborhoods. Class and income segregation become even more pronounced.

In the face of these devastating outcomes, religious schools offer a ray of hope by stabilizing their communities and offering a choice to parents who might otherwise relocate. Further, religious schools provide a subsidy to taxpayers and the public school system by reducing the number of students enrolled in the public system.

This issue raises difficult choices for public officials. Should they exclusively spend their time, energy and money trying to improve performance in public schools? Or should they make their mandate to provide "public" education more inclusive, advocating for any quality school that serves the public? If the latter, what attitude should city authorities have toward faith-based schools, in particular? In most districts, public schools concerned about short-term funding issues or not sure where the line is between church and state choose not to cooperate with their faith-based counterparts -- and another opportunity to partner and strengthen services to our children is lost.

There are public school leaders, though, who believe that having a range of educational choices is good for cities and their students. Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, considers her mission to include not only running the public school system but also administering vouchers and authorizing charters. She recently added, "I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent's ability to make a choice for their child. Ever."

Once city officials take the position that their job is to provide public education -- not just to run public schools -- the question becomes, "What can I do to help urban children interested in religious and other private schools?"

First, city officials can halt the policy bias against private schools. For example, in Indianapolis, we recognized the importance of faith-based schools to the inner city and authorized the local archdiocese to issue tax-exempt debt to remodel its schools.

Second, state and municipal governments can support urban students enrolled in religious schools who want access to certain courses in the public school system. Residents should be allowed to cross-register at a public school for technical and specialized courses not typically available in parochial schools. (This is the type of opportunity to partner and strengthen services to our children that I referred to earlier.)

Third, communities can fund transportation, computer software, approved textbooks and health care for all students, not just those enrolled in publicly funded schools. And private schools should be allowed to lease city facilities at reasonable, marginal rates. City and state officials truly concerned about public education will go even further by encouraging educational funding through tax credits, like Pennsylvania's Educational Improvement Tax Credit. Clearly, public authorities should not help religious schools with public tax dollars -- but there is no reason why they can't help students in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Inner-city religious schools often anchor a neighborhood, provide hope to struggling families, create structure in a child's life and offer financial relief to citizens who would otherwise have to fund additional educational costs. Religious schools are not the answer for all students, but they can be the answer for some.

These are not obvious or easy choices for a mayor or public leader. Rallying the schools run by public officials seems more germane and is generally greeted with more acclaim. Yet it is worth asking, when facing intractable issues, is it an institution we are trying to rebuild, or is it the good it produces? This support need not be adverse to the public schools, but rather complimentary as they struggle to reform. Government schools or education for the public? Government-run hospitals or public health? And so on. Sometimes the answer is one and the same, but not always.