Pope Francis’s recently released apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia has received considerable attention because of the issue of divorce and communion. But the 60,000+ word document has much more to say about family life than the dissolution of marriage. For example, it provides some compelling reasons for all Christians (not just Catholics) to support school choice.
The term “school choice” refers to programs that give parents the power and opportunity to choose the schools their children attend, whether public, private, parochial, or homeschool. While there are numerous passages relevant to school choice in Amoris Laetitia, here are four essential quotes:
“Economic constraints prohibit a family’s access to education, cultural activities and involvement in the life of society. In many ways, the present-day economic situation is keeping people from participating in society.” (p. 34) —
A key sphere of society in which social justice is in desperate need of restoration is education. The poor deserve the same freedom to obtain a quality education that is too often reserved for those wealthy enough to rescue their children from failing schools. For this reason school choice should be considered a matter of social justice.
As Archbishop Charles J. Chaput says, lack of a quality education is a common thread among persons in severe poverty. “Catholic social teaching is built on a commitment to the poor,” says Chaput. “Few things are more important to people in poverty than ensuring their children’s education as a path to a better life.”
While there are some excellent public schools in America, many students are trapped in schools with inadequate facilities, substandard curriculum, and incompetent teachers. Most parents, however, cannot afford to pay for education twice—once in taxes and again in private school tuition. School choice programs empower parents by letting them use public funds set aside for education on programs that will best serve their children.
“. . . I feel it important to reiterate that the overall education of children is a “most serious duty” and at the same time a ‘primary right’ of parents.” (p. 66)
Education is a primary right of parents. But because government mandates education for children and provides resources for fulfilling that mandate, parents have a corresponding civil right. As Nelson Kloosterman argues, “parents have a civil right to support only that educational system they wish for religious reasons to use.” Says Kloosterman:
We must be clear that parental educational choice is more than a preference and a desire; it is first a human right, and therefore it must be protected in the context of judicially mandated activity. As a right inherent in the parent-child relationship, parental educational choice entails the right of parents to teach their children or have them taught in ways that are effective and that are consistent with their religious beliefs. (This latter was affirmed in the 1923 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Meyer v. State of Nebraska.) Since the government mandates education and provides resources for fulfilling that mandate, parents should by law be permitted to honour that mandate and use those resources in ways that are effective and consistent with their religious beliefs.
“Schools do not replace parents, but complement them. This is a basic principle: ‘all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent and, to a certain degree, with their authorization’.” (p. 66) —
The reasons many parents support school choice is simple: the public schools have failed in their responsibilities. “Most parents desire solid education for their children in a safe and supportive environment,” says Kevin E. Schmiesing. “Too many public schools do not provide such an environment.” School choice helps parents better fulfill their basic responsibilities. As Shmiesing adds:
The benefits of school choice are many, which should not be surprising. When parents are encouraged to take responsibility for their children’s education, both parents and students begin to view education in a different light. Shifting parents and children from a position of dependency on government to a position of empowerment promotes a vision of persons as participants in society, rather than observers or dependents.
“The State offers educational programmes in a subsidiary way, supporting the parents in their indeclinable role; parents themselves enjoy the right to choose freely the kind of education – accessible and of good quality – which they wish to give their children in accordance with their convictions.” (p. 66) —
While the Pope doesn’t directly use the term “school choice,” this quote shows that he endorses the general concept. Whether Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, mainline, this is one area where all Christians should be able to agree with the pontiff.