WASHINGTON (October 6, 1997) -- The U.S. Bishops' top educator, Msgr. Thomas McDade, has sharply criticized Education Secretary Richard Riley for his incendiary rhetoric marred by errors and innuendo about Catholic schools in a speech at the National Press Club.
Msgr. McDade, the Bishops' Secretary for Education, made his remarks in a paper made public October 6.
"I cannot in good conscience, allow his inaccuracies and innuendoes to go unanswered," said Msgr. McDade, citing the Sept. 24 speech and a related white paper.
"It is regrettable that Secretary Riley has decided that it is a parent's right to choose where their children will be educated that is so divisive...," said Msgr. McDade, decrying the Secretary's "incendiary rhetoric, factual inaccuracies and unfounded implications that are divisive and do a disservice to our children's future."
"Issues can be controversial, and we can still disagree, but we ought to be able to dialogue about them with civility and not distort reality to attain our goal. The Secretary's approach last week, seems to be a desperate attempt to de-rail a challenging issue in the educational reform debate, whose time has come," Msgr. McDade said also.
He noted the Secretary's recent call for accountability and testing.
"I believe that if he were to be graded on the factual accuracy of last week's press conference; his final grade would be a D minus," Msgr. McDade said.
Archbishop Francis B. Schulte, Chairman of the Bishops' Committee on Education, affirmed Msgr. McDade's remarks.
Msgr. McDade noted that vouchers enable parents to choose where to educate their children.
Secretary Riley was "insulting" parents and students in non-public schools when he asserted that vouchers would "unravel" the public at school system; "balkanize" public education, "divide communities" and "threaten our democratic ideals," Msgr. McDade said.
" Private and religious schools have existed on this continent since before our nation came into being and for well over half a century after the nation's founding," he added.
"Simply put, private and religious schools served the public good of this nation before the ideal of the 'common' school was ever put forward by Horace Mann and his followers," Msgr. McDade said.
He added that "private and religious schools have provided a quality education to Presidents, Vice Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, Members of Congress, Governors, Mayors, state legislators, doctors, lawyers, educators, scientists, business people, simple everyday laborers and the disadvantaged for more than two centuries and our democracy has not faltered and the public school system is still the dominant educational system in the country."
"The fact that a significant number of public school teachers choose to send their children to these schools attests to their quality," Msgr. McDade added.
Msgr. McDade noted that in 1995 the Bishops called for educational reform in their document entitled Principles for Educational Reform and asked Secretary Riley to speak with them on this issue.
"The only response has been two years of silence," Msgr. McDade said. "Now the Secretary contends that supporters of parental rights in education never talk about improving reading, the quality of teaching, raising standards or fixing schools."
"This just does not accurately reflect the truth, and if the Secretary doesn't know that, he ought to," Msgr. McDade said.
He cited contradictions in Secretary Riley's arguments against vouchers.
"In one breath, Secretary Riley implies that those who support parental rights in education are going to destroy the public school system by drawing students away and in the next he states that there are not enough spaces in private and religious schools to take all those who might wish to transfer to private and religious schools through a voucher, scholarship or tax assistance.
"How can Secretary Riley expect thinking people to be fooled by such contradictions?" he asked.
He dismissed Secretary Riley's contention that allowing parental choice in education would drain funds from the public school system and said none of the school proposals currently before the Congress would take a penny from the public school system.
"The DC appropriations bill contains additional funding for DC public schools," Msgr. McDade said. "The education IRA would provide financial assistance to parents in public, private and religious schools to meet education related expenses, not reduce funding to public schools."
"The Secretary seems to quietly allow the reality that these IRA's would be a benefit to parents of public school children slip from view in the unfounded hope that no one will notice and then he calls this proposal a 'voucher under another name," Msgr. McDade said.
"He also contends that such proposals are simply aimed at paying the tuition of students currently enrolled in private and religious schools and that it could cost the taxpayers "$15 billion" to do so. The fact is that parents who send their children to private and religious schools, based on the 1995 average per pupil cost of public education ($6,084 - U.S. Dept. Of Education), annually save the taxpayers of the nation approximately $30 billion, while they pay double to attain the education they feel important for their children."
Msgr. McDade took particular offense at Secretary Riley's contention that "a parental choice option would skim a limited number of students from public schools and leave the poorest behind."
"Catholic schools have a long and proud record of serving the poor and the disadvantaged in our urban centers," Msgr. McDade said.
"Our schools are as diverse as the public schools, enrolling almost 25% minorities (approximately the same percentage as public schools nationally). In many of our inner cities the minority enrollment reaches as high as 100 percent. In addition, many of these schools enroll significant majorities of non-Catholics," he said. "The Catholic community has made huge human and economic sacrifices to maintain this service to the poor and the needy, and we will continue to be this oasis of educational and moral stability to those in need as long as we possibly can. In many cases, parents see this option as the only lifeline available to them in order to save their children and provide them with the skills needed to survive in the competitive world of the 21st century. To imply that we are unaccountable and to then compare our schools to for profit schools who have defaulted on college loan obligations is insulting, is not supported by any factual evidence and seems like an attempt to deceive the American public."
He charged Secretary Riley with introducing a straw man into the argument with comments about religious schools being "willing to give up their religious mission in order to overcome constitutional barriers."
"Let me be very clear on this," Msgr. McDade said,. "We have absolutely no intention of giving up our religious mission. If we did, we would lose our reason for existing and we would deserve to close."
Msgr. McDade also noted that there are constitutional experts who have outlined the guidance needed to craft parental choice legislation that would survive a court challenge.
"Rather than use scare tactics, let's draft a sound piece of legislation, pass it, sign it into law, implement it, monitor it to see if it works and let the courts decide the constitutional questions, if there are any," Msgr. McDade said.
Msgr. McDade also noted that Secretary Riley avoided mentioning the increasing number of members of the minority community who are now saying that we need to try something new and throw their children an educational life-line. He cited researchers who report "significant increases over the last two years in support for parental choice in education in the African American (57.3%) and Hispanic (65.4%) communities. This change is especially noted in groups of the: young (age 18 to 35); lower income (under $35,000) and those with children currently in public schools."