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School choice: Good for students and the community

A Bishop's Perspective

Posted: March 4, 2012 - 1:11am

I am the product of both private and public education. In Pennsylvania I attended two Catholic grade schools and a public high school. In these institutions I had some outstanding teachers, received a good education and made lifelong friends. I am in touch with teachers from both my secular and religious schools. A couple of my high school teachers even attended my celebration when I was ordained in Pittsburgh as the Bishop of Juneau. Public and private education served me and my parents well. I have encountered some great teachers in both secular and religious institutions as well as some “not so great” educators in these schools.

This past week I had the opportunity to testify before the Alaska State House Finance Committee in their hearing on House Joint Resolution 16. This piece of legislation is proposing amendments to the Constitution of the State of Alaska relating to state aid for education. In doing so, it will assist students throughout Alaska and their parents in making a choice in education. During my testimony, one member of the house committee responded that he had attended Catholic school and that his parents provided that education for him and his siblings, however, his mind was set and he would not vote in favor of this legislation. I replied that he was blessed to have parents who were able to make that choice and that he should not preclude other Alaskan parents from making the same type of choices for their children. I also said that while his parents were able to provide private education for him and his siblings, many families are not affluent enough to provide this choice for their children. I thought too of all those who struggle in his district who would be prevented from choosing their child’s schooling. I question why anyone would want to prevent a parent from choosing the education they deem best for their children.

I support the legislation that is currently before the legislature that would allow all Alaska parents to choose public or private education for their children by providing them the state funding to do so. Supporting this legislation is by no means a judgment upon a school district or type of education one receives, but rather supports parental involvement in making the best decisions for their children regardless of their economic status.

Parents are the first teachers of their children. Parents not only lay the foundation for their children’s academic achievement, but pass onto them who they are, where they come from, their cultural traditions, their purpose in life and their moral, ethical and spiritual beliefs, so that their children might grow up to be virtuous women and men. This is not only a parental right but a parental responsibility and they should have the broadest possible range of choices in choosing schooling that reflects, in their judgment, what will be best for their child.

Providing parents (especially low income parents) with a diversity of educational choices and the economic means to send their children state-supported traditional or alternative charter schools or to religious or secular private schools or to home school them, works for the common good of children, their families and the community. From my perspective, I believe that a diverse mix of public and private, for profit and non-profit institutions benefits every community.

Private schools of all kinds maintain the rich diversity of educational institutions in our country and our state. State support for private schools, especially religious ones is controversial. I am mindful of two decisions from the United States Supreme Court that offer these insights:

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public school teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations. (1925 Pierce decision, U.S. Supreme Court)

And in reference to recent events in the state of Ohio that supported public funding that allows families a choice, the Court majority said:

In sum, the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice. (2002 Zelman decision, U.S. Supreme Court)

From my experience growing up in Pennsylvania, I witnessed the public and private or the secular and religious education institutions working together to provide the best for children. For example, public school districts assisted with the transportation of students through the region and state laws provided for released time for religious education. It was clear that the community worked together to provide for parents and students what was best. Allowing parents a choice in their child’s education is good for students and a benefit to the community.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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