Educators and religious leaders from around the region resolved to mobilize in support of faith-based schools that have proven they can help at-risk students.
The depletion of faith-based schools in the New York region is a crisis that threatens to rob inner-city children of an important educational alternative, according to members of the New York City Roundtable on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools, which met in Manhattan on Tuesday, Sept. 23.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, moderated the meeting to bring a national issue home to New York. All of New York’s schools, at all levels, share an educational mission that transcends the distinction of public vs. private schools, Father McShane said.
“While we may be private schools, we are private schools in the public trust and the public service,” he said.
The forum continued discussions that began in April at the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools, held in Washington, D.C.
Attendees on Tuesday included Edward Cardinal Egan, archbishop of New York, and Rabbi David Zwiebel, vice president for government affairs for Agudath Israel of America, and Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. The meeting also drew state legislators and federal representatives.
One of the latter, Karl Zinsmeister, said the government is working to turn around failing public schools. But that will take a while, and inner-city families can’t wait, he said. They need alternatives now, and faith-based schools are a good one.
“This is hard work, to turn around existing schools that are failing our children,” said Zinsmeister, assistant to President George W. Bush for domestic policy and director of the Domestic Policy Council.
The forum produced several short- and long-term actions for helping faith-based schools.
Catherine Hickey, Ph.D., chairwoman of the New York City Religious Schools Committee, said the state must acknowledge its responsibility to make up recent cuts in reimbursement to private schools for performing state-mandated functions.
She also called for tax credits to help parents at faith-based schools, and to encourage corporate and individual donations in support of the schools. She and other speakers said faith-based schools educate children for a low cost compared to their public counterparts.
State Sen. Martin Golden, R-Brooklyn, said tax credits to encourage donations have succeeded in Pennsylvania, adding that rallying thousands of children in the state capital is a good way to get lawmakers’ attention.
“This model is successful in Pennsylvania and other states, and it can work here in New York,” he said.
Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, D-Bronx, proposed a longer-term solution: repealing the so-called Blaine Amendment to the New York state constitution, which restricts public support of faith-based schools.
Cardinal Egan said the successes of faith-based schools get scant media attention, and that they’re needed to offer competition in the educational system while helping counter the downward trend in popular culture.
“What we’re losing is a treasure,” he said. “This is a very, very serious situation. It means we’re not going to have any challenge for a culture that is in real trouble.”
Rabbi Zwiebel said faith-based schools helped establish the Jewish community in America after the Holocaust, when it was an oddity for some students to have living grandparents.
“The Jewish community has been rebuilt on these wonderful shores,” he said.
Faith-based schools outperform other schools in setting and meeting high standards while providing discipline and a safe learning environment, Zinsmeister said. More than 95 percent of faith-based high school students graduate, and nearly all go on to college.
But such schools have been declining since the 1960s. Nearly 1,200 were lost between 2000 and 2006, according to Zinsmeister’s presentation. About half were Catholic schools. Pentecostal, Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Episcopal and Lutheran schools also suffered. Only Jewish and Islamic schools increased.
“This is really heartbreaking. These schools will not be replaced once they disappear,” Zinsmeister said.
The schools have been financially squeezed in recent decades because their parishes have dwindled, he said.
Working-class parishioners with the means to help support the schools have left for the suburbs. Today’s students are more likely to come from low-income families that have trouble paying the tuition. The schools are committed to serving them, but struggle to absorb the cost of keeping tuition down. Also, staffing costs have soared.
“There’s only so much that can be covered by gifts and by church subsidies,” Zinsmeister said. “People do not know what dire straits these schools are in.”
There’s precedent for governments supporting faith-based schools in this country; 150,000 students—mostly at the state and local levels—get publicly funded scholarships for attending faith-based schools.
“There is very much a foothold already existing in this area,” he said.
The United States is unusual among industrialized nations in its restrictions on public support for faith-based schools, he continued. Such support is the norm in France, Denmark and other countries that see the schools as providing a valuable public service. He said private schools advance the public good even though they’re traditionally distinguished from public schools.