It's a common observation in the inner city: The public school is a mess, but the Catholic school around the corner is a great success.
How can this be? The conventional explanation is that the Catholic schools skim off the children from more motivated and more financially stable homes. Besides, they can expel troublesome students, and the public schools can't.
The only flaw with this rationale is that it's completely wrong. Consider the excellent assessment of this issue by Sol Stern in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank.
As Stern writes, a study by the New York State Education Department found that Catholic and public schools have similar percentages of students from troubled families with low incomes, and another report shows that Catholic schools expel far fewer students than public schools.
He cites the experience of a wealthy non-Catholic benefactor, Charles Benenson, who guided both public school students and Catholic school students as part of the "I Have a Dream" program, which offers college tuition to minority children who finish high school. In the public high school class he "adopted" in the South Bronx, only two of 38 children made it to college. In the Catholic school class, 20 out of 22 went to college.
"They were the same kids from the same families and the same housing projects," said Benenson. "In fact, sometimes one child went to public school and a sibling went to Catholic school. We even gave money to the public school kids for tutoring and after-school programs. It's just that the Catholic schools worked, and the others didn't."
Thirty years of research have consistently shown that Catholic schools outperform public ones, usually at a fraction of the cost. In New York City, Catholic schools operate on a budget of $2,500 per student per year, about a third of what the public schools spend.
The only news is that urban public school systems continue to ignore the success of religious schools. When New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said that Catholic schools should be the model for reforming the public system, the silence was deafening.
One reason why the unsuccessful refuse to study the successful is that they are wedded too closely to the factors that make them fail. The Catholic schools, like religious schools in general, have no paralyzing bureaucracies, no tenure guarantees, no rigid credentialing systems that keep out able teachers. And they are not at the mercy of powerful teachers unions that have enough clout to frustrate reform.
Stern thinks "it's hard to escape the conclusion" that the power of these unions, and their contributions to liberal candidates, have a lot to do with the dominant liberal opinion that Catholic schools should be ignored and get no government aid. An issue that purports to be about the separation of church and state is about control of a monopoly school system.
The other major reason why public school officials can't bring themselves to seriously examine religious schools is a moral one: Religious schools are based on a shared moral vision that generates respect among teachers, parents and students, and lends a sense of common purpose.
By contrast, many public schools seem to envision students as basically rights-bearing individualists facing an endless series of consumer choices of classes to take. Stern is very sharp on this point, arguing that one key to the success of Catholic schools in New York is that they missed the so-called rights revolution, which eroded the authority of schools and discouraged the disciplining of students.
One study of the success of the Catholic schools came up with this assessment: Catholic schools take the position that "no one who works hard will fail," while the prevailing approach of too many public schools is that "no one who shows up will fail."
A communal culture also makes religious schools relatively immune to most of the disastrous fads that plague the public system: multiculturalism, dumbing down, the narrow obsession with self-esteem.
Stern thinks it's folly to keep pouring all public funds into the school system that is failing our inner-city children, while trying to keep every nickel out of the hands of schools that are succeeding. He says it's time to "tear down the wall of separation" by encouraging the flow of private money to religious schools, and by granting vouchers and tuition tax credits to religious as well as secular schools. This is a common-sense solution. So watch for the politicians and union leaders to fight it tooth and nail.