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Op-ed: Challenge and Opportunity for Catholic Education

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Read this op-ed in your favorite news outlet! It appeared in The Pilot, The Salem News, The Eagle-Tribune, The Berkshire Eagle, the Fall River Herald News, The Taunton Daily Gazette, The Providence Journal, the New Bedford Standard-Times, and The Lowell Sun.

I grew up in Chelsea. My education was shaped by nine years in the Chelsea Public Schools and high school at Austin Prep, a Catholic school in the suburbs.

In the Chelsea of my youth, religion and education mixed, even in the public schools, where our teachers marched us down the street in the middle of the day every Wednesday to the nearest Catholic school for religious instruction. It was a different time, though well after the clear legal establishment of the separation of church and state.

Over the last century or more it would be difficult to understand Massachusetts without appreciating the central role that Catholic education has played in the commonwealth’s historical, political, economic, and cultural landscape. Of course, going back to the early-to-mid 19th century, Massachusetts’ Catholics dealt with infamous bigotry and intolerance, which find their worst expression in two so-called anti-aid amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution that block public dollars from going to private and religious school families.

Given our desire to do as much as we can, especially to help poor urban kids participate fully in the American Dream, we need to provide them with access to school choice options: charter schools; vocational-technical schools; private and parochial schools; and METCO, a program in which Boston and Springfield students are educated in surrounding school districts. Choice is what the privileged have for their children. Why shouldn’t everyone have access to high quality academic options?

Pioneer Institute is deeply committed to the public school reforms that were driven by the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, which I co-authored. Under education reform, Massachusetts students have achieved stellar results, leading the nation on every grade tested in reading and math from 2005 to 2013 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, called “the nation’s report card.” In 2007 and 2013, our students were among the top performers in the world on international math and science tests.

Yet, as well as Massachusetts public schools have done, the Archdiocese of Boston’s schools score even higher on the SAT and other nationwide achievement tests. A number of factors explain this success, including the fact that the Commonwealth’s Catholic schools adopted the state’s previously nation-leading, liberal arts-centric public school standards in English and math, which helped to propel our public schools’ successes, as well.

But that’s not the whole story. In this age of relentless news about street gangs, opioid addiction, and school dropouts, Catholic schools strive to use the liberal arts to imbue their students with character and moral education, and with a commitment to their faith. Catholic education has endured for centuries because it’s grounded in ideals — the true, the good, and the beautiful — that speak to the human soul. These matter in the education of young people, since education is an inescapably moral endeavor for passing along knowledge, wisdom, and history to future generations.

Despite its successes, Catholic education is experiencing trying times across the country. According to a Fordham Institute report, about 5.2 million American students attended Catholic schools in 1965; by 2008 it was closer to 2 million.

This demographic phenomenon is naturally having an impact on Catholic schooling in Massachusetts. In 1942, Boston alone was home to 225 parish, grammar, and high schools. Today, there are but 124 schools in the entire Archdiocese of Boston. Manifesting this trend, just this past August, Boston’s only Catholic high school for girls, Elizabeth Seton Academy, closed. Meanwhile, St. Joseph Central high school in Pittsfield, the only Catholic high school in all of Berkshire County, will close at the end of the current academic year. Catholic education’s long-term sustainability is far from guaranteed.

I feel fortunate that my own education and life were shaped by value-based instruction at Austin Prep. It is important to me personally and to thousands of families across Massachusetts that K-12 Catholic education continue and survive into yet another century.

TOM BIRMINGHAM IS A FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE MASSACHUSETTS SENATE, COAUTHOR OF THE MASSACHUSETTS EDUCATION REFORM ACT OF 1993, AND A SENIOR FELLOW IN EDUCATION AT PIONEER INSTITUTE.

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