THE NATIONAL crisis in public education is nowhere more keenly felt than in Baltimore. Crowded classrooms, high absenteeism, a high dropout rate and a disturbing level of illiteracy, even among high school graduates, are a few of the reasons Baltimore parents are demanding a change in the way their children are educated -- and why taxpayers are increasingly dissatisfied with the return on their investment.
As confidence in public education sags, more voices rise to support "educational choice," an alternative that would empower parents to control where their tax dollars in education are invested. Choice would allow people to shift those dollars to public schools in other jurisdictions, or to private and parochial schools. Though the idea still may seem revolutionary, it has the support of President Bush, who has called for a sweeping redefinition of a public school as "any school that serves the public and is held accountable by the public authority."
In Maryland an educational choice bill advocating a pilot program using tuition vouchers in Baltimore City was introduced last year and is expected to be considered again this year in the General Assembly. The proposed legislation has special implications for poor families, for whom a tuition voucher system would present a unique opportunity to help children receive an education they might not otherwise afford.
The tuition voucher legislation, if enacted, would establish a small pilot choice program allowing a limited number of parents of Baltimore public school students a real choice in the schools their children attend. Parents, whose family incomes must be at or only slightly above the poverty level, would sign to have their children participate in a lottery. Of those who apply, 100 would be chosen through a random selection process. Each family would receive a tuition voucher for use at the student's chosen school, to be paid from a trust fund established by the state. The academic performance of the chosen students would be measured and compared to the achievements of those who participated in the lottery but were not selected.
This program, which would be targeted to the parents of underachieving students, would provide economically deprived families the same opportunities available to parents of higher income and in more prosperous communities: the choice of a school that best serves their children's academic needs and goals.
Catholic schools, which are among the alternatives available in the proposed pilot program, constitute the largest nonpublic education system in the state. For many years we have been educating the kinds of students who might benefit from this program.
Black enrollment in Catholic schools in the city has increased dramatically over the years and today accounts for about 40 percent of all students, many of them non-Catholic and drawn from the city's poorest neighborhoods. Catholic schools provide these students a secure, nurturing and stimulating academic environment. Indeed, more than 90 percent of all students educated in the Archdiocese of Baltimore's high schools go on to college.
More significant, a study conducted by the Rand Corp. found that students in New York City improved their academic performance dramatically after transferring to a Catholic school. The students in the study, who were enrolled in a Catholic high school after completing public primary school, were drawn primarily from single-parent, welfare-dependent families and had demonstrated low academic achievement while in public school.
When compared to their former classmates who were enrolled in public high schools, including public "magnet" schools, the students attending the Catholic schools exceeded their public counterparts markedly in graduation rate, in percentages taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test and in average SAT scores.
A separate study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center and the University of Chicago found that low-income students enrolled in Catholic schools did far better academically, as measured by test scores, graduation rates and college attendance records, than public school students with comparable backgrounds. Valerie Lee, a professor at the University of Michigan who has studied school reform, notes that "while blacks and Hispanics scored lower than white classmates in all schools, the gap was substantially lower in Catholic schools." It would seem that the expectations Catholic schools have for students is contagious, infecting all with a fever for greater academic achievement.
What accounts for this? A rigorous education in the fundamentals is certainly one reason. But Catholic schools also provide an education in values. Positive role models teach students to face challenges confidently, to accept responsibility willingly and to believe in their own ability. Of equal importance, parents of students in Catholic schools are welcomed, encouraged and expected to play an important role in all aspects of their children's education. Parents, for example, are fully represented on the governing boards at the 101 schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore (and there is no large central bureaucracy). It is "parent power," even among the poorest families, that Catholic schools have been so successful in nurturing and harvesting.
While we acknowledge our vested interest in seeing the passage of the choice legislation in Maryland, our goal as Catholic educators is the enhancement of all education by introducing a choice that empowers parents, regardless of their financial circumstances, to select the school best suited for their children's development. For many, that is a Catholic school.
Lawrence S. Callahan is superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.