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The ‘secret sauce’ that helps Catholic schools over-achieve

(By Kathleen Porter-Magee, originally in the New York Post)

Last week, the Supreme Court heard ­arguments in Espinoza v. Montana. At ­issue is the constitutionality of the state’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public revenue from going to religious schools. Montana is one of 37 states, including New York, whose constitutions include Blaine Amendments. Rooted in 19th-century anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant animus, these amendments aimed at halting the creation and spread of Catholic schools.

Fortunately for the immigrant communities they have now served for more than 150 years, Catholic schools persisted, and generations of kids benefited as a result.

To see why they do right by children, just visit Partnership Schools NYC, the network of Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx that I lead. Our secret sauce is a holistic approach that puts values at the center of education. It’s faith at work, and there are lessons in our work for the wider education-reform movement.

These days, talk of values isn’t always welcomed in education circles. The conventional wisdom holds that public schools ought to be values-neutral. But fact is, no school is truly values-neutral. ­Educators working toward this goal tend to veer towards relativism — forgetting that relativism is itself a value.

Teachers and administrators make decisions about what is and isn’t learned and how content is presented. These decisions form children. And strong values form strong cultures. Schools play a unique role in a child’s development, and education reformers shouldn’t shy away from pursuing values that will make their communities stronger.

Perhaps no school system in the world has been as successful at imparting values as US Catholic schools. They have done this by challenging modern beliefs about what should and should not be taught in schools. Catholic schools profess that truth is objective and that one goal of education is the search for objective truths. This informs students about the merits of civic engagement, commitment to family and devotion to Almighty God.

Yet when early charters looked to replicate the historic success of urban Catholic schools, they focused more on external characteristics than on the values that provided the foundation for learning. Catholic schools have become the framework many charter networks use to promote discipline and order within their own schools.

But Catholic schools don’t seek order for its own sake, a way to keep kids in line. Rather, because of our belief in free will, Catholic schools seek to form students with the habits of virtue that help them choose to do good. To that end, Catholic schools emphasize that freedom comes with responsibility, with actions consequences. This approach forms the habits of virtue that serve students well beyond graduation.

Many of the barriers to success inside and outside of the classroom are a product of poverty. But there is hope for breaking the cycle. Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox of the American Enterprise Institute have found that if those in poverty follow a “success sequence” — graduating college, then getting married, then having children — they are far more likely to break out of the poverty cycle.

Research has shown that students who ­attend religious schools are less likely to participate in risky criminal and sexual activity. One study found that girls who went to Catholic school were more likely to avoid early pregnancy, and boys who went to Catholic school were less likely to be incarcerated.

Academically, Partnership students — at schools like St. Athanasius in The Bronx or Our Lady Queen of Angels in Harlem — routinely surpass state, city and charter test-score averages, serving as a reminder of why many poor families have historically sent their children to Catholic schools.

Still, while student achievement is important, it isn’t sufficient to bring about transformative change for our children. That’s why the Espinoza case is so important: By ruling the right way, the Supremes can clear away the barriers that disadvantage religious schools and help ensure that all families, ­regardless of their income, have the right to choose the values in which they want their children educated.