Private School Vouchers: The Future or the End of Catholic Education?

The recent race for Governor in Wisconsin, as well as the ongoing financial pressures facing our Catholic schools across the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, have meant that private school taxpayer vouchers continue to be a regular topic of conversation.  It is a very tempting and alluring prospect to think that all of our funding problems will be solved if we jump on the bandwagon of receiving thousands of dollars in tax payer money to support our schools.

This is a complex issue and one that I think requires a great deal more thought than we sometimes give to it.  As food for thought in what I am sure will be a discussion topic around here more and more in the near future, it is interesting to consider another Catholic ministry that has been caught in the cross-winds of cultural engagement in much the same way that Catholic Education has: Catholic Health Care.

The Church founded hospitals and clinics early on in our Nation’s history. We did so in the face of serious needs for medical care, and as a means to follow the command of Christ to take care of the sick and the suffering.  These hospitals typically did not charge patients, and they were staffed mainly by religious sisters (and some priests) who saw it as their vocation and worked, generally, for free. They were supported by generous donations of labor (vocations) and by financial donations that came in response to the begging of the sisters who ran the institution.  They delivered medical care in a manner that was intentionally Catholic, in accord with the ethics of the teachings of the Church.  The infrastructure that was built up in the height of the Catholic medical system was extensive and impressive.

These days, much of that infrastructure is gone.  In many (but not all) areas, Catholic Health care is now done in name only without there being anything truly distinct about the way it is delivered.  Few nuns staff the hospitals.  The Church is barely a presence.  Apart from the Catholic name on the side of the building, one would not otherwise know they are Catholic.

The reason they are still operating is not because of the Church or because of any real Catholic ministry or identity.  They are operating because millions of dollars of insurance and entitlement money flow into the buildings everyday.  Their funding mechanism essentially ensures that they will be open, and also that they will be non-distinct from any other medical facility.

A similar tale can be told about the larger Catholic colleges in our country. Most of them are no longer all that Catholic, despite the name on the logo.  They are funded less and less by Church generated resources and more and more by federally subsidized loan money.  They are essentially turning into state schools.

Long story short, it would be interesting to ask if in another 50 years our Archdiocesan Catholic schools, which in their origins were funded and staffed in the same way that Catholic hospitals were, will be equally non-distinct in their delivery of Catholic Education because they are surviving on millions of dollars of voucher money.  Yes, they will be open.  Yes, there may be a Catholic name on the outside. However, the delivery of education is not unlike the delivery of medicine.  When fueled by gobs of entitlement money it will grow more specialized, very expensive, and unavoidably state run.

Do we turn to vouchers to keep our schools open?  Or, do we start realizing that Catholic Education these days, to be truly Catholic and truly helpful, is going to have to look different than what everyone else is doing?  Are vouchers a crutch that is allowing us to avoid harder questions about Catholic identity and life? Are we entering into that program merely to maintain our structures without considering the long-term consequences?  Are there other creative structural and funding solutions that we can look to instead that will ensure our schools are indeed still supported by Catholic resources as much as possible?  How can we encourage the conversion of hearts, to generate stewardship and vocations, in order to support our ministries without a heavy reliance on public money?

I would be very interested to hear these questions discussed as the topic is debated in Wisconsin.  Much ink has been spilled on the legality of the voucher program, its relationship to public school health, and its mechanism of operation.  I have seen comparatively little discussion, from within the Church, on how good vouchers are for our own long-term health and identity, especially in light of what are becoming widespread failures of identity in other sectors of our apostolate, all propped up by outside funding.  I’d like to think that we can creatively figure out another way to do this from the heart of the Church and with real generosity as well as new creativity.

Let us pray for, and encourage, a robust and honest dialogue about these questions that impact our ministries in such important ways.  We will be stronger as a Church for giving them honest consideration.

About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. He is also the Courage and EnCourage chaplain for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Courage is an apostolate of the Catholic Church that ministers to men and women who experience same sex attraction.
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