A Bishop's Perspective Bishop Burns

Continued discussion: school choice in Alaska

By Bishop Edward J. Burns,
‘A BISHOP’S PERSPECTIVE’ in the Juneau Empire: 2-16-2014

In reading some of the responses to my previous article in the Juneau Empire, I noticed a common argument among those who disagreed with me and who are opposed to SJR 9 (and its companion measure in the House, HJR 1).

This argument goes as follows: SJR 9 is dangerous to education because it threatens to pull money out of public schools, which are already under-resourced. This is seen as having an unavoidably negative effect on education. I am going to characterize this as the argument for the status quo.

Erin Foley, Sofia Mercado, teacher Liane Rae and Hanjin Jacobs work on a science skit using an iPad at Cathedral School in late December 2013 Portland, Ore. Cathedral is one of an increasing number of Catholic schools that give an iPad or tablet to every student. (CNS photo/Ed Langlois, Catholic Sentinel) (Jan. 29, 2014)
(CNS photo/Ed Langlois, Catholic Sentinel)

While I do empathize with the concerns of proponents of this argument, its conclusion is based on some false premises. This undermines its proponents’ claim to offer a clear picture of a possible outcome of SJR 9 and muddies the waters of the debate.

The first false premise is that there aren’t positive, and current, instances of public/private cooperation in education in Alaska (or beyond). A quick visit to the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development website illustrates that this is not true. There are a host of such arrangements in current practice. That is why one of the stated purposes of SJR 9 is to ensure that these already current educational practices are constitutionally sound.

A trip to the U.S. Department of Education website will reveal similar practices at the federal level. The cultural landscape of America is such that there are many excellent public and private educational opportunities at the college level. State and federal grants support students at both public and private schools, including Church-related universities, an implicit recognition that the government is not the only legitimate provider of education. This fact reveals another false premise of the argument for the status quo: that diversity in educational communities and approaches is bad and betrays American ideals.

Many pointed out that my previous criticism of the version of the Blaine Amendment we have in Alaska is in part on the fact that I am a pastor of the Diocese of Juneau. This is true. I believe that Catholics are among many communities who are called to assist the people of Alaska in the task of education, and we have overcome great odds to do this.

In America this commitment is rooted in the historical memory of prejudice against Catholics in public school systems and the heroic efforts, particularly in the establishment of Catholic school systems, that were required to overcome institutional and societal prejudice and to help Catholic immigrant communities take their rightful place in American society.

This calls into question another premise of the status quo argument: that the specifically Catholic influence on education is narrowly sectarian and a threat to education in Alaska. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation certainly did not agree with this when it partnered in an $18.9 million grant to replicate the success of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, an inner-city school in Chicago serving low income and minority youth, by funding the creation of 12 new high schools in the same model in other urban centers.

As they continue to serve children and young people of the Catholic community, Catholic schools today strive to provide the same advantages to families of all religious backgrounds, combining academic excellence with formation in moral and spiritual values that, for a number of reasons, can no longer be addressed effectively in public schools.

Perhaps it is my opinion as an American and a graduate of a public high school that will carry more weight than my opinion as a pastor. My sense as an American is that there is a problem with making the state the only legitimate player in education. Does this not create a type of monopoly? We know that such a situation is almost never a recipe for innovation and success.

My intuition tells me that a one size fits all approach to education is not good, and that education flourishes when there is a mixture of governmental and non-governmental agencies involved. No school system is perfect, and some Catholic schools, like some public schools, have legitimately been the targets of criticism. Catholic education does, however, have centuries of successes to draw from in offering its unique contributions to the educational system here in Alaska.

As I understand SJR 9, it is not an argument for a specific voucher program, nor is it designed to harm public education. Nobody supports that. The purpose of SJR 9 is to allow the people of Alaska to vote on the legitimacy of the Blaine Amendment by calling into question its motivation and wisdom. This discussion should not be feared but welcomed. It is born of a sense of responsibility for shaping the future of education, ensuring its quality and development. It is an outcome of the complex cultural and geographic landscape of Alaska. It recognizes the positive role that religious schools of many faiths have played in the development of education in our state. The status quo argument, which depends upon false premises and neglects the positive potential of SJR 9, should not be used as a way to accuse others of not caring about public education.

Indeed, many who would support SJR 9, myself included, see it as laying the foundations for a more comprehensive and collaborative approach toward education in Alaska. This is something that could and ought to contribute to a stronger and more focused public educational system. It should also support innovative and effective, localized models from non-government entities and initiatives that rely on a mix of funding sources.

Ultimately, the allowance of this discussion is meant to improve the quality of education our children receive, especially taking into consideration those who are most disadvantaged. I am grateful to recognize that this is something that people on both sides of the debate care deeply about.

%d bloggers like this: