The recent hearings and confirmation of Betsy DeVos brought the debate about choice in education to the fore. While we don’t often get involved in such debates at HLI, we do consistently advocate for religious freedom and against the corrupt sex miseducation that is now regularly foisted on children in public schools, and sadly, sometimes even in Catholic schools. With Mrs. DeVos’ confirmation we have a chance to look at the question of education as it pertains to Catholic families.
It seems like whenever Catholics raise questions about the poor state of public education, we are told that we don’t care about the education of America’s children. Normally, this “You Don’t Care” ad hominem is impossible to disprove: when someone charges you with apathy, you spend the rest of the conversation defending the idea that you do care.
But the notion that faithful Catholics are opposed to the universal education of children is verifiably false. In fact, the educational responsibility of parents is written into the very sacramental code of Matrimony as a foundational and universal mandate. Non-Catholics might be surprised to learn that the Catholic Church officially teaches that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children. Further, the Church teaches that there is an unbreakable bond between procreation and education.
As the Church views it, the responsibilities of the marital act are not fully realized merely in the conception or even in the birth of the child; the serious parental responsibility to educate children extends throughout childhood. And except in the direst of circumstances, that parental responsibility to educate applies universally.
From a Catholic perspective, the question is not whether children should be educated, but how and in what subject matter we should educate them. When the Catholic Church uses the word “education,” it refers primarily to the instruction of faith and morals. In other words, the duty to teach the Periodic Table or Pride and Prejudice is seen as secondary to the primary duty of imparting the knowledge of the Decalogue.
From a Catholic perspective, the teaching of faith and morals is not arbitrary; nor is it optional. It is the primary focus of the child’s education.
The subjects of a child’s education are important to discuss, but there is a prior and even more fundamental discussion, namely: who should make the decision? Notwithstanding the awesome personal duty to educate one’s children, the Catholic Church clearly teaches that a parent may commission another person, persons, or entity (schools, academies, parental co-ops) to fulfill some or much of this educational obligation. But it is the right, the duty, and the responsibility of parents—and not the government or the state or the “village”—to determine how, when, where, or whether this commission occurs at all. Though the state properly has an interest in the education of its citizens, that interest does not encroach upon the sacrosanct rights of parents any more than parents’ interest in the state extends to them the ability to declare war on behalf of the nation.
As Pope Pius XI phrases it in the encyclical On Christian Marriage:
For the most wise God would have failed to make sufficient provision for children …if He had not given to those to whom He had entrusted the power and right to beget them, the power also and the right to educate them…. Now it is certain that both by the law of nature and of God this right and duty of educating their offspring belongs in the first place to those who began the work of nature by giving them birth…
The idea that the “collective” should make the decisions that have been considered the domain of parents—along with the insistent distrust of parents—is the inversion of Catholic social and moral doctrine. And as it turns out, the collective is pretty darn collective. Some believe not only that while federal government is an appropriate entity to micromanage each and every workbook your second-grader uses, but that the United Nations should dictate, or at least influence, much of the process.
There are those who would put their faith progressively not only in big government, but in biggest government; thus, state government is viewed as more equitable than local, national better than state, and international better than national. We are told that it takes a community and a village to educate children, only the “village” now means the “global village” and the “community” now means the United Nations.
Especially considering the abysmal track record of federal education, the claim that a federal government is the only legitimate authority in terms of how each and every child is taught is not only offensive, but bizarre.
In mathematics, the United States ranks about 30th best among the nations of the world, falling behind a plethora of countries both big and little, hot or cold, democratic or totalitarian. In science, America doesn’t play second fiddle; she plays 24th fiddle, ranking behind countries such as Estonia, Japan, Korea, Poland, Ireland, Vietnam, Canada, the Netherlands, Lichtenstein, and Slovenia. In reading, America fails to crack the top 20 nations. (Happily, we are marginally ahead of the once-solvent, once-sovereign nation of Greece.)
Schooling that is dictated at the federal level is not working. For one to draw a conclusion other than that, one would have to ignore all available statistics.
We Catholics do believe in government that is strong enough to protect basic rights and provide basic services in a competent, transparent and efficient way. But we also recognize the wit and wisdom of the late President Ronald Reagan once commented: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: … I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
With apologies to the Gipper, I know a more terrifying one: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to educate.”
When faced with numbers like the above, the consistent answer has been that schools require additional funds. “Additional funds” is a gentle euphemism meaning taxing at a higher rate for an even higher level of federal involvement. Specifically, it means that the Department of Education and the teachers unions run the educational show in America. Yet, almost miraculously, increased funding has produced no net benefits for public schooling in thirty-five years.
Ironically, the least funded options have worked best. The most obvious example is homeschooling, which gets zero federal funding. But even that number of zero overstates how much federal funding that homeschooling parents receive. Homeschooling parents are taxed at federal, state, and local levels to pay for public schools, yet do not enjoy any tax relief for the educational expenses of their own children.
Yet, supporters of public education claim that the massive Department of Education has been a success. How, exactly, looking at overall public school student performance in reading, science, math, and geography? Not to worry, they say. Look instead at “progress” made in gender ideology, secular thinking, and sex “education.”
It is to America’s benefit to have an educated citizenry. To that end, it is time to return educational power to parents, to local communities, and to the states. Let successful public schools attract students by earning their trust, not by default. As someone once wrote: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Again, our concern is with both the eternal and temporal aspects of the human person—that is, every person and the whole person. Given the massive overreach of the federal government over the last several years, the aggressive attacks on religious freedom, life and family, families have reason to be skeptical about relying even more on the government. Parents have a special gift and responsibility to educate their children, and deserve some return on their tax investments in the form of support and freedom to choose what is best for their families. My hope and prayer is that Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, can help families do just that.