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It’s common to assert that faith-based schools are more successful than public schools¯at least, in inner cities¯in educating students. Sure, their teachers get paid less and often have fewer credentials, and they receive much less federal funding. So what is it that has apparently made faith-based education better? When I asked a former president of the National Catholic Education Association, it took several minutes before the notion arose: “There may be something about the fact that faith-based schools are,” he paused, “faith-based.”

Not that you’d know it from the people at the Department of Education, who have in recent months become interested in the success of urban faith-based schools¯and, sadly, not that you’d know from many of the people actually running those faith-based schools.

I ran into plenty of both kinds at the Summit on Inner-city Children and Faith-based Schools, a conference hosted by the White House this past April. The summit¯drawing roughly three hundred teachers, school administrators, clergy, policy-makers, philanthropists, and others generally invested in religious education¯became a platform for lauding the academic excellence of these schools, for lamenting recent closings, and for seeking new solutions. President Bush brought his trademark intensity to his opening statement: “When schools like these fail our inner-city children it is unfair , it’s unacceptable , and it is unsustainable for our country.”

The argument looks something like this: America’s inner-city schools are in crisis, with average graduation rates around 52 percent. In some cities¯Cleveland, for example¯only 35 percent earn diplomas. This grim situation has caused many parents to look to private schools (often Catholic schools) for sanctuary, paying for it themselves, or using vouchers, or seeking scholarships.

But now even those schools are facing a crisis. Built decades ago in downtown areas to serve an immigrant Catholic population that has since moved out, they have stayed to offer education to local, poor families. But as Catholic schools’ costs have skyrocketed, the parish-supported income for inner-city churches has plummeted. More than 1,300 urban Catholic schools have closed since 1990, displacing over 300,000 needy students, according to an April 2008 report of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The question, of course, is what these schools offered that the urban public schools did not. Throughout the day’s events, the panelists struggled to put their finger on just what that might be. It is “a little bit of a mystery,” admitted Karl Zinsmeister, the president’s domestic-policy advisor, “but part of the explanation seems to be the school culture, that these institutions outperform others at presenting¯you know, creating things like discipline and safety and racial harmony and a sense that all children can succeed.”

It’s something to do with “the salience of moral education,” which “does not have to be religious, just the teaching of right and wrong,” ventured Dr. William Jeynes, a panelist who, slideshow and all, analyzed the advantages of religious schools. It’s “a better school culture.” It’s “a sense of moral discipline, self-worth, and community obligation,” added another panelist. And for Dr. Vernard T. Gant, it is something indescribable that made him want to shout¯despite being at a White House event in an election year¯“Yes we can!”

Although they fell short of precisely defining what it is that makes religious schools special, the panelists had nothing but zealous applause for the schools’ superior results. Religious schools contribute to “the public good,” which, as Zinsmeister put it, makes them “every bit as much public institutions as, you know, the Red Cross or the United Way or the YMCA or any of the other entities that we think of as serving the public good.”

Could it be that religious identity, the greatest single thing distinguishing religious schools from public schools, plays some part in the different results we’re seeing? This question was the least explored at the summit. Even some figures from religious schools dismissed the notion that religious identity could be instrumental in their schools’ success.

While waiting in line at the summit, I struck up conversation with an energetic, silver-haired woman wearing a well-worn blouse, slacks, and a name tag that identified her as a religious sister. She readily told me about the Catholic girls’ school she runs in inner-city Washington, D.C., and the laborious but worthwhile task that is. When I asked her how much of a role Catholic teaching plays in her curriculum, she hesitated to answer: “pretty much all of our girls are non-Catholic, so we don’t really think we should be pushing our beliefs on them . . . . I mean, they learn about moral values, yes, but as for Catholic [history and doctrine]¯we don’t really see that as our place to teach them.”

She is one of many educators today who takes part in this line of thinking, a line of thinking that Pope Benedict criticized only a few days prior at the Catholic University of America, imploring “teachers and administrators” to live up to their “duty and privilege” to instruct students in “Catholic doctrine and practice.”

But despite the pope’s words, many Catholic educators think that it is somehow more Catholic not to stress Catholic identity in schools. The summit participants often invoked the late Cardinal Hickey’s words: We should help others “not because they’re Catholic, but because we’re Catholic.” While one wants to praise the notion that it’s right to help others in need on the basis of their human dignity, it’s quite another thing to imply that creed and faith play no important role in a religious school. That would suggest a fundamental shift in both the purpose of these schools and the call of the faithful¯that it is better for a school to be essentially more faithful-sponsored than faith-based.

Consider, for instance, Cristo Rey, a system formed by Jesuit priests in Chicago to help low-income students afford Catholic education by teaming with city businesses in a “Hire for Ed” program. Of the program Bush remarked, “It’s interesting that the Jesuits took the initiative. I would hope that corporate America would also take initiative.” Sure, it’d be nice if corporate America and the government were more naturally inclined to do this, but they’re not. History shows us that these kinds of ideas are more likely to sprout on the local level, and are often fueled by something greater than a concern for educational excellence for its own sake¯something more like faith.

Once religious identity is considered less than integral to the school’s welfare, it’s no small leap to what the summit’s concluding panelist, Lawrence Weinberg, described in his vision for government-sponsored religious charter schools. In these schools, courses “can teach morality” or “culture,” but “no religion course may endorse the religion being taught” or “identify [with] a faith.” He insists, “the critical point for religious leaders considering opening a charter school is whether they will be able to fulfill their desired mission through a school that can accommodate religion but does not endorse religion.”

That the government finds this a handsome alternative shouldn’t surprise us. But it should surprise us when we see this view coming from religious-school teachers themselves. Certainly, demanding that students of different faiths believe in the school’s religion is wrong; but equally extreme is the notion that educators dare not teach students about the faith that inspired the charitable organization’s founding. (Even more shocking is the notion that they could consider it in the students’ best interest to be deprived of the slightest exposure to teachings they consider to be the truth.) In the face of the problems religious schools currently face, it is doubtful that a shift from the faith-centered focus of their founding is the ticket to reviving them.

Mary Rose Rybak is managing editor of First Things .

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