School Daze

Choosing Catholic or Public for Your Kids

My friends tell me that in their youth there was a pretty radical rivalry between Catholic school kids and public school kids in “CCD.”

I’ll take their word for it, because Latino kids like me were on “holy over-drive”
—we went to both! My mom was not taking any chances, and come to think of it, maybe she was right. I did choose to become a theologian.

But let’s say you don’t envision a life pouring over ancient religious texts for your children. How do you make certain that their education is the best it can possibly be? Which is better, Catholic school or public school?

When I became a mom, that question gained new meaning. It is not a question I can answer with a simple, “This is better than that.” It is complex, especially if you take the Church’s teaching on social justice seriously.

On the positive side of a Catholic education is the continuity between home and school, the implied assurance that the school’s moral teaching and worldview will not be in conflict with what my kids are learning at home. Yet, on the negative side of choosing a Catholic education, we would be removing our commitment and resources from the public school system, a system that is based on equal access to all.

Let’s get real; minority children can seldom afford a Catholic education. No matter how good the intentions of our parishes or dioceses, running a Catholic school takes money. If all the parents that could afford to leave public education did leave, would we create a two-class system with public education left only for the poorest? What would that mean for a public school?

When I placed my son in our neighborhood public school, a school with a 90% minority population, I saw that the school had to spend precious resources teaching and helping the disenfranchised parents. Without bilingual second generation parents in the population, the school was bereft of parental leadership. His school was wonderful in its commitment to every child, and my son stayed. His presence was our way of staying involved so that quality public education would continue to be available to all.

In contrast my daughter went to Catholic school. She did not do well in large environments but needed the focused one-on-one attention she could not get in public school. I wondered about the social justice issues though.

One day I was volunteering translating parent letters at her school. I read the stories of single moms working two shifts to pay tuition, fathers who could barely spell their names praying to the Virgencita that their child would someday be successful. I was deeply moved; social justice was present here too, in a school with a high tuition (because teachers have to be paid). Here there was a beating Christian heart, loving to the point of sacrifice. These kids had a precious gift not only because they were being taught faith, but because they were seeing faith at work in their parents who trusted God so completely.

So is there an answer to which kind of school is better? No, just this reflection: when you choose where to send your child, think of the unique characteristics of your child, think about the community that will surround your child, and, whether in Catholic or public school, be ready to roll up your sleeves and help the community thrive.