Catholic NJ Governor Supports “School Choice”

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

The newly elected Catholic Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has come out in favor of school choice, saying parents and children deserve better than to be trapped by the “educational bureaucracy” of the nation’s failing public school system.

“ . . . Parents and children deserve a choice,” the Governor said during a keynote addressed he delivered Monday evening at the American Federation of Children National Policy Summit Dinner in Washington, D.C. “Parents and children who are being failed by a public school system who’s costs are exorbitant, and who’s results are insulting, deserve a choice.”

He went on to say that there are over five million children who are “trapped” in over ten thousand failing public schools around America. “And I use the word trapped – I use it directly,” he said. “They are trapped by an educational bureaucracy. They are trapped by a selfish, self-interested, greedy, school union that  cares more about putting money in their own pockets and in the pockets of members than they care about educating our most vulnerable and needy children around the country. . .”

The Governor then announced that he will support a scholarship program that will allow students to opt out of 200 “chronically failing” New Jersey schools, a program that he called the “first step” leading to the use of school vouchers across the state.

The bill, now pending in the New Jersey Legislature and set for a hearing next week, will allow parents of all means to make the same choice he did in sending his four children to Catholic school.

“A single mother in Newark, working two jobs to keep a roof over her child’s head, should have no less of an ability to make that choice,” he said. “Her child’s life is no less precious than ours. Her child’s future is no less promising than ours.”

If passed, the bill will allow low-income students in chronically failing schools to win scholarships they will cover tuition at private schools or public schools in other communities. The bill will establish 24,000 scholarships to be funded by corporate donors in exchange for tax breaks, and be distributed to recipients through a lottery system.

Not surprising, a coalition of education and community advocacy groups attacked the idea in a press release entitled, “Mr. Christie Goes to Washington,” saying that bill will siphon $360 million in corporate tax revenue over the next five years that is “desperately needed to fund public schools.”

“This is not about ‘school choice,’” said James Harris, president of the New Jersey NAACP to the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “This is about using precious public funds to subsidize private and religious education.”

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers’ union, and the Education Law Center,  oppose the bill. The law center says it “fails to apply rigorous educational standards and accountability measures to all schools receiving public dollars.”

Catholic writer Deacon Keith Fournier says that instead of arguing about “school choice,” the issue is more about “parental choice.”

“After all, it is parents who are the first teachers of their children and the family is the first school. That is really where the debate should focus,” he writes in a commentary appearing on Catholic Online

He cites the teaching of the Catholic Church on the issue of the primacy of parents in the educational mission as being a helpful guide in devising a national education policy that will actually promote the common good.

“The primacy of marriage – and the family founded upon it – as the first cell of society, the first church, first government, first school, first hospital, first economy, and the first mediating institution of the broader society is at the heart of Catholic Social Thought.”

Quoting from “The Role of the Christian family in the Modern World” (Familiaris Consortio), Pope John Paul II states: “The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others…”

In another of his instructions Pope John Paul II addressed parents as those responsible for the first School, the domestic church of the family.

In his “Letter to Families”, he wrote: “Parents are the first and most important educators of their own children, and they also possess a fundamental competence in this area; they are educators because they are parents. They share their educational mission with other individuals or institutions, such as the Church and the State. But the mission of education must always be carried out in accordance with a proper application of the Principle of Subsidiarity.”

Deacon Fournier believes Parental Choice in education is an idea whose time has come.

“It is a matter of real social justice, not what is masquerading as social justice these days,” he writes. “The opposition of many in control of the teachers unions to such an obviously just approach to educational policy and fundamental fairness shows just how far some of these mediating associations, like some unions, have strayed from their primary role.”

Candidates for the 2010 midterm election and those considering a run for the White House in 2012 should pay attention to Gov. Christie’s commitmetn to this issue.

Parental choice “is not a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ approach,” Deacon Fournier writes. “It is just the correct approach. Parental choice in education is right for our children, right for our parents and right for our Nation.”

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