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June 16, 2014
Viewpoints: Don't leave out religious schools from school choice

Catholic_school.JPG(June 16 - By Alan Bonsteel, Special to The Bee)

School choice is winning decisively in California. We have the highest number of charter schools - our public schools of choice - of any state, with 1,130 schools serving more than 500,000 students as of fall 2013, and with 44 charter schools just in Sacramento County. The astounding 7 percent annual growth rate of our charter school enrollment has actually accelerated in recent years.

New Orleans has just transformed itself into a model of all of their public schools being charters, with the last traditional public school there having closed its doors on May 30. This revolution came about because the charter schools so convincingly outperformed traditional public schools, with higher test scores and lower dropout rates.

There is, however, an extremely important school choice option that is lagging, both in California and the nation. Literally the most faithful of our private schools are being harmed: Our K-12 religious schools.

This is because the fastest growth in school choice has been in public charter schools, which may not offer religious instruction. With their excellent quality and high test scores, charter schools have siphoned away enrollment from our religious-based private schools.

This, of course, is all the more frustrating in California, a state that has always been known for its tolerance and its diversity of spiritual paths.

When Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latino to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, she credited her Catholic school education with putting her on the path to historic achievements. When she heard that her school, Blessed Sacrament in New York City, had closed, she said she was "heartbroken."

America has always been a nation of faith for most and religious freedom for all. George Washington's prayers in the snows of Valley Forge gave him the strength to lead a barefoot and hungry army. The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was the very embodiment of Abraham Lincoln's faith, and he spoke truly when he helped to consecrate the hallowed ground of Gettysburg in this nation's war to abolish slavery. And when, only 16 days after D-Day, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the nation's first education voucher program, the GI Bill of Rights, he made sure that it included religious universities for the "Greatest Generation" that was about to defeat Germany and Japan.

Many Latino families in California would dearly love to send their children to Catholic schools that would keep alive their religious and cultural ideals. And in the United States today, 68 percent of all African American families are headed by single mothers, who overwhelmingly support school choice for the children they are struggling to raise. The "I Have a Dream" rallying cry of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was as much a spiritual summoning as a political movement, and we honor King's legacy when we provide outstanding schools to our minority families.

Right now, our country's leaders are sending their own kids to private religious schools. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all sent their children to religious schools, and Vice President Joe Biden's grandchildren currently attend a religious school.

If the political big shots can send their kids to religious schools with their tax-paid salaries, why can't our struggling families also take advantage of the one-two punch of the superb academics and faith-based family values of religious schools?

Charter schools are wonderful, but what we need more than ever are school voucher programs that include faith-based schools. We can and we must make available to every California family - regardless of the color of their skin or how much money they have - a fair chance for a place in one of the spiritually based schools that have served our state so faithfully. There is no greater gift we can give our children, and nothing that they will cherish more, than the priceless legacy of a lifetime of meaning and purpose in their lives.

Alan Bonsteel is president of California Parents for Educational Choice.