First Place Award for General Excellence, Catholic Press Association, 2013-2016

Counterpoint: New York’s Catholic Schools Prove the Value of School Choice
By Dr. Timothy J. McNiff
Dr. Timothy J. McNiff

Recently, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten made public remarks likening school choice to, among other things, “the polite cousin of segregation.” Unfortunately, Ms. Weingarten’s attacks are misguided, and one need look no further than the Catholic school system in the Archdiocese of New York to see why.

Ms. Weingarten stated that policies to enhance school choice are “the only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” and “hide a dangerous ideological agenda,” yet our Catholic schools in New York City are more racially and ethnically diverse than the city’s public schools based on the Department of Education’s own metrics. According to Mayor de Blasio’s Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City’s Public Schools report, 30.7percent of NYC public schools are racially representative (e.g. black and Hispanic students make up at least 50 percent of the student population but not more than 90 percent). In the Manhattan and Bronx regions of the archdiocese, 35.5 percent of Catholic schools are racially representative. In addition, 28 percent of families in our system are non-Catholic, and where the percentage of racially representative schools is highest (Manhattan, Northwest/South Bronx, Northeast/East Bronx), 36, 31 and 46 percent of families are non-Catholic, respectively. It stands to reason, if more families in underserved communities were able to attend one of our excellent Catholic schools, the goals of augmenting school diversity and reducing overcrowding in our public school system would be achieved.

Ms. Weingarten went on to state that the “real pioneers of school choice are the white politicians who resisted school integration.” As Cardinal Dolan has affirmed, the Catholic school system believes families are the first and primary educators of their children. In truth, it is our families who have been the most ardent “pioneers” for school choice in New York and throughout the nation. Furthermore, the reality is African-American and Latino parents are among the most passionate advocates for school choice policies. According to a recent poll conducted by Beck Research, three-quarters of all Latinos polled support school choice, as do 72 percent of African-Americans. Those sentiments help all of us to understand that low-income, minority communities in urban areas stand to benefit the most from legislation promoting education choice. For example, among the New York City students receiving tuition assistance through the Archdiocese of New York’s Inner-City Scholarship Fund, 70 percent live at or below the federal poverty line. In addition, Catholic schools continue to perform better than both New York City and New York state schools in English Language Arts. In our Catholic high schools, 97 percent of our seniors graduate, and the vast majority go on to post-secondary education. When you juxtapose these facts, you’re left with a powerful and compelling picture of the real difference the opportunity to attend a Catholic school is making in the lives of thousands of children.

In light of this evidence, it is disappointing when opponents of school choice resort to groundless and, many times, inflammatory claims. Consider, for instance, the Education Tax Credit legislation proposed in state government. This particular bill had the collective support of Governor Cuomo, Cardinal Dolan, nearly half of the Democrats and the majority of Republicans in the New York State Assembly, and the majority of both parties in the New York State Senate, including the Independent Democratic Caucus. Does this sound like “the polite cousin of segregation?”

When you strip away all the special-interest rhetoric, the benefit of school choice legislation for children and families is clear. Rather than the “polite cousin” of anything, school choice is the proud mom and dad who want nothing more than better opportunities and a brighter future for their children. It’s time for policy-makers to do what is right for children and families and deliver on this critical promise.

Dr. McNiff is the Superintendent of the Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New York. The Catholic school system in the Archdiocese of New York serves nearly 70,000 students in more than 200 schools across 10 counties.

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