Are Publicly-Funded Catholic Schools a Good Thing?

Catholic Schools Have High StandardsHow often do we wish that Catholic schools got funding like public schools? How often do we see parents struggle to pay for a Catholic education? There are a few places that Catholic schools are publicly funded. Now I want to use my experience of both realities to present the advantages and disadvantages.

I grew up with 13 years of publicly-funded Catholic education. Then I lived most of my adult life elsewhere. Now I’m back in Alberta and Ontario where there’s publicly-funded Catholic schools. However, to add to the complication, I minister part-time at the only private Catholic school in Alberta.

Let’s explore the advantages, the disadvantages and the challenges. Then I want to leave an open question for the combox: would publicly-funded Catholic schools be a good thing?

One obvious advantage is attendance. While in the US only 10-15% of Catholic kids attend Catholic schools, where they are publicly-funded, that number jumps into the 90s. It still isn’t 100% for various reasons: the only Catholic family I knew as a kid who sent their kids to public school was one who sued the school board for negligence in a daughter’s injury.

A second obvious advantage is that Catholic schools don’t express a class division or elitism. One of the biggest dangers of private Catholic schools is that can lead to an elitist clique since only wealthier families can afford them.

One big disadvantage is that Catholic schools no longer depend on the bishop. If schools are publicly-funded, the school board needs to be elected; in Alberta any person who wants to vote for the Catholic school board instead of the public board can. The bishop can ask them to do X but they can listen or not. Another way this happens is that parishes and schools are no longer linked so if the principal doesn’t want the local pastor to come in, he can’t.

The entrance to my own High School named after a previous bishop of the diocese (from Wikipedia)
The entrance to my own High School named after a previous bishop of the diocese (from Wikipedia)

Another disadvantage is that they are dependent on public-education standards. For instance in Ontario, the government recently ordered public-Catholic high schools to have “Gay-Straight Alliance” clubs and explicit sex-ed. My community ran a boarding school in Ontario and the government approved textbooks had such garbage in some places we would cut pages out to protect students’ innocence / avoid indoctrination. Alberta has not gotten to this level – the sex-ed class in Catholic schools has an acceptable pro-chastity message and isn’t too explicit. A side effect of this is that it is much harder to find space for a youth group because the parish school’s gym doesn’t exist.

A final disadvantage is rather hidden: when Catholic schools are publicly-funded, Catechism class becomes purely intellectual. This can happen in private Catholic schools or kids going to public school but they give more opportunity to help teens experience their faith through prayer, service, and community. Publicly-funded schools have “Religion” on the schedule between Science and Social Studies and almost necessarily treat it as one more class.

The biggest challenge is maintaining Catholic identity. This is a problem all over regarding Catholic schools but when they are publicly-funded it’s that much more difficult: the bishop can’t insure it, only elected officials and the superintendent can. This calls for well-formed Catholics to take on such positions (which requires that Catholics want them too). For example, the city board I grew up with, Calgary Catholic School Board, has been so-so in its Catholicism, but the board just south in the rural area, Christ the Redeemer School Division, is much stronger in its Catholicism.

Stemming from this challenge is whether it is better to attend a not-so-solid Catholic school or a public one. A not-so-solid school can lead kids to confusion: they will think this is the Church when it isn’t. However, a public school requires active adults to help form kids in their faith – and unfortunately may not be any better at avoiding confusion. It would seem that in most circumstances a public school would be preferred to a heretical school claiming to be Catholic. The question gets murky if the school just teaches a watered-down Catholicism.

In conclusion, I think publicly-funded Catholics schools are beneficial if you have well-formed Catholics to lead them; otherwise, I’m not sure. Whether Catholic schools are publicly-funded or not, passing on the faith depends on well-formed Catholic adults. Kids in Catholic schools don’t automatically keep their faith. Would your state be better off with publicly-funded Catholic schools?

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