The central principle organizing the academic program of most parochial schools is a core curriculum for all students regardless of background and future educationdetailsonline plans. Electives are limited, and required courses predominate.

Students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds respond well to the challenge. The focused core curriculum of a parochial school improves student achievement, particularly among disadvantaged students, and protects against the academic fads that sweep through the education world with such depressing frequency. Schools of the future will require more core academic coursework of their students, particularly socially and economically disadvantaged ones.

Such a structure requires a strong communal organization. Parochial educators view teaching as a vocation, a ministry of service. The schools promote personal interactions and shared experiences among those who work in, attend, and support them. Numerous activities unite staff, students, and supporters-including athletic events, fundraisers, rallies, school plays, alumni gatherings, retreats, and various forms of religious ritual and prayer. Academically, the core curriculum plays this unifying role. These promote a commonality of purpose that supports the school’s mission.

Parochial schools are typically less constrained by centrally controlled bureaucracies than are public schools. Nearly all important decisions are made at the school site, under the leadership of the principal. This allows a school to develop a distinctive character and sensitivity to the unique needs of students and families.

This market responsiveness is moderated by the fundamental beliefs and values that permeate the school. The unique educational philosophy of a parochial school affirms the existence of fundamental truths and includes a special, religiously based respect for the dignity of each person and the sacredness of human community. This perspective determines not only what students know but also the morality they will follow and the moral community the school creates.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the public and private realms is this explicit moral education, character development, and, in religious schools, religious instruction (though public schools in recent years have become more mindful of these issues).

Charter schools-(mostly) independent public schools of choice accountable for the results of student learning-comprise a serious attempt by the public sector to reinvent education along these lines and give public schools full autonomy. Unfortunately, not all charter school laws are equal: some display the facade of freedom but not the reality. Policymakers must resist the temptation to constrain charter operators with the current web of state statutes, rules, collective bargaining agreements, and the like.

As charter schools demonstrate, a public school is coming to mean any school willing to embrace high standards, enroll students without discrimination, and be accountable for its results, regardless of who owns or operates it. Public money follows the child to these schools, and what unites them is a compulsory set of academic outcomes confined to a core list of broadly accepted knowledge and skills.

American “public” schools of the future will not look, feel, or act like “government.” But they are plainly larger than the individual or family. In that sense, they satisfy the classic definition of a “mediating” institution, They are, in fact, examples of what contemporary analysts term “civil society.” They are voluntary institutions, neither compulsory nor monopolistic. They are more responsive to their communities than schools created by large public bureaucracies.

Schools, of course, should play a fundamental role in this process, but today’s conventional public schools are hobbled by bureaucratic constraints against religious education. Of course, in a pluralistic society there are bound to be varying ideas of what this means. Unfortunately, the current system of American public education cannot accommodate such variety. Thus if we are to revitalize our communities, if we are to rebuild the social capital of our families and neighborhoods, if we are to educate our young people, especially those who are most disadvantaged, we must allow families much more choice in schooling, and with it a flowering of variety, pluralism, and freedom. Antiquated laws and attitudes that favor the status quo are the only real limit on the future of American education.

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