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January 23, 2003 Edition

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Parental choice: Don't forget the fourth 'R'

Although both of my parents were public school teachers, they decided to send their children to Catholic schools. I was fortunate to experience an excellent education for 12 years in Catholic schools.

My parents wanted me to get a solid academic preparation. But they wanted more than that. They felt a Catholic school would add a fourth "R" to the traditional "reading, writing, and arithmetic." That fourth element was "religion."

Faith dimension. The faith dimension was closely integrated into both my grade school and high school programs. Frequent attendance at Mass, religion classes, preparation for sacraments, and service projects were all part of our Catholic school education. Our teachers - priests, sisters, and laity - served as role models on how to live our faith on a day-to-day basis.

Although education costs weren't as high as they are today, my parents did have to pay tuition at Catholic schools. It was a sacrifice. Some families struggled even harder to afford to send their children to a Catholic school.

School choice. All parents should have the right to send their children to the school of their choice, be it a public, private, or religious school. That's something I firmly believe.

Opponents of school choice have argued that the U.S. Constitution prohibits aid to parents who select religiously affiliated schools. But the Supreme Court overruled that argument. In June of 2002, the court decided in the Zelman vs. Harris case that there is no constitutional prohibition against parental choice.

But while school choice is now constitutional, it is up to state and local governments to set up educational choice programs. These programs should give all low-income and even middle-income families the right to choose the schools they want for their children, says the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) in a statement reaffirming the association's commitment to parental choice in education.

Join the debate. The statement, issued Dec. 6, 2002, encourages Catholic educators to join the debate in collaboration with other religious, civic, and business leaders who support full and fair educational choice. "We support programs such as tax credits, vouchers and scholarships to ensure that all parents have the financial means to select the appropriate school for their children," said the NCEA.

"We recognize that a majority of America's children are educated in public schools, and we respect the professional competence and commitment of our public school colleagues. But we believe that full and fair parental choice will strengthen both families and schools, and improve educational opportunities for all."

Catholic Schools Week. As we prepare to celebrate Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 26 to Feb. 1, we salute all those involved in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Madison and across the nation. (See the special section in this week's Catholic Herald [print edition] for more information.)

I urge citizens concerned about school choice to educate themselves about this issue (visit the NCEA's Web site at www.ncea.org). We must explore options providing all parents and students with full educational choice, including the choice to attend our outstanding Catholic schools.

Mary C. Uhler, editor

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