NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!
Some of us have argued for years that parental choice has the potential to rejuvenate and reinvigorate one of the greatest success stories in American education: the nation’s network of Catholic schools.
Now we have the proof of concept.
Catholic schools are thriving in Florida, home of the most comprehensive school voting system in America. Schools that nearly closed a decade ago have waiting lists. New schools were opened. There’s even one school – St. Malachy, near Fort Lauderdale – that closed during the Great Recession but has just reopened thanks to renewed demand.
According to a revealing new report from Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that administers Florida’s educational choice scholarship programs, Catholic schools in Florida have grown 4 percent over the past 10 years, while New Jersey has grown 33 percent and New York fell 31 percent and 25 percent in Pennsylvania. In fact, Florida is one of only a few states to have seen growth in Catholic schools during this period, and the only state in the top 10 for the number of Catholic students.
School choice is a major contributor to this resurgence.
For generations, millions of parents have appreciated the reliable, quality, and affordable education that Catholic schools provide. But make no mistake: it was a challenge to compete with “free,” state-funded schools.
RANDI WEINGARTEN ATTACK ON DESANTIS DUE TO EDUCATION RETURNS
In Florida, school choice has created a level playing field. Eligibility for government-funded selection scholarships has steadily expanded over the past 25 years, giving more parents the opportunity to choose the schools they feel are best for their children. The Findings: Last year, Catholic schools in Florida served 41,048 students on elective scholarships, three times the number a decade earlier.
As Step Up points out, this accessibility also made Florida Catholic schools more diverse. Last year, they ministered to more than 6,000 children on special-needs scholarships, three times the number a decade ago, while non-Catholic enrollment increased from 13 percent to 19 percent. The proportion of colored students has also increased significantly, rising from 46 to 65 percent. This makes Florida Catholic schools statistically more diverse than Florida “public” schools. I put “public” in quotation marks because all Florida schools—traditional county, charter, private, and religious—serve the public, and therefore the common good, not just those directly funded by the government.
Crucially, Florida choices have not undermined freedom of religion. Catholic schools did not have to forsake their core beliefs or sacrifice their autonomy to accept students using government scholarships. Indeed, families from all walks of life have found Florida’s move toward pluralism refreshingly liberating.
The resurgence of Catholic schools in Florida could not have come at a better time.
For one thing, the COVID-19 pandemic has once again highlighted the “advantage of the Catholic school.” America’s Catholic schools reopened earlier than most traditional district and charter schools and achieved significantly better academic results. A phenomenon that did not go unnoticed by the parents either.
Meanwhile, the evidence for Florida is in, as several states (including Florida) are implementing universal choice programs. Freedom of education has long been popular with voters across the political spectrum, but now, finally, politics is mirroring politics. It is the duty of all who support Catholic education to seize this moment and momentum.
In states with large New Choice programs, Catholic schools cannot rest on their laurels or assume that once a program is passed, someone else will lead families to our doorstep. We need to get out of the Upper Room and evangelize about the value of our schools and the opportunities that come from choice.
CLICK HERE FOR MORE OPINIONS ON FOX NEWS
As the Step-Up report also underscores, Florida Catholic schools have carefully diversified their offerings to compete in an environment where parents have more and better options every day. They have also found effective ways to inform parents of their choices. The Diocese of Venice, for example, sent a million text and email messages to their families this year to ensure they knew selection scholarships were available. Not surprisingly, all 16 diocesan schools are full.
But not everywhere is as sunny as in the Sunshine State. In places where political dynamics make state choice difficult (for now), we believe it is appropriate for supporters to participate in state legislative initiatives. The Education Choice for Children Act is one such proposal and would create a $10 billion tax credit program to fund choice scholarships across America. This would be particularly helpful for families who do not have access to government programs.
CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP
The remarkable expansion of school offerings offers historic opportunities for Catholic schools to serve many more children and families. The Florida story shows what’s possible when voting becomes the new normal. It is intended to serve as both inspiration and motivation.
If supporters rise to the challenge, Florida will not remain the outlier for long, and all parents will enjoy genuine freedom and the right to direct their child’s education.