Fairness for Catholic Schools
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
February 2011

North Dakota’s Catholic schools deserve our admiration. Not only do they provide a quality Catholic education for children, but they do so in a restrictive regulatory environment.

North Dakota, for example, is in the minority among the states when it comes to dictating what courses must be taught in nonpublic schools. It is only one of a few states that dictates what courses must be completed to receive a high school diploma.

North Dakota is one of only seven states that requires Catholic schools to be approved or accredited by the state. Most states allow private schools to conduct their own approval and accreditation process.

North Dakota is one of only four states that requires all classes in nonpublic schools be taught by a state certified or approved teacher. Two of those states - Nevada and Louisiana - exempt most or all religious affiliated schools from that requirement. Maine exempts schools approved by an independent accreditation body. This leaves North Dakota as the only state in the nation that mandates who can teach in Catholic schools. Making the situation even more difficult is the fact that the requirements for receiving a teacher’s license are more onerous than most states.

The cumulative impact of these regulations arguably makes Catholic schools in North Dakota the most regulated in the nation. To their credit, North Dakota’s Catholic schools have, for the most part, managed to survive in this difficult environment. The restrictions, however, prevent innovation in education and lead to absurd results.

Take for example, the situation of a religious studies course in a Catholic high school. Catholic high schools require students to take courses in religion. These courses can be demanding and are taught by well-qualified teachers. The teacher, for example, may be a priest with an advance degree in theology. He may have already taught high school in another state. He may even teach courses at the university level. If, however, that same teacher does not have a license from the state of North Dakota those courses cannot count toward the credits needed for a diploma. In the eyes of the state, those courses are not “classes” and the teacher is not really a “teacher.” To the state, the students are participating in something no different from recess or an extracurricular activity.

Senate Bill 2317 would address some of these problems by allowing individuals with a baccalaureate degree or greater teach courses in “theological studies.” This, in turn, would allow students to receive credit for courses taught by these teachers.

Hopefully, Senate Bill 2317 will still be before the state senate when this column is published. Call and contact your senator and ask him or her to support SB 2317. Check the North Dakota Catholic Conference website for more information at ndcatholic.org.

Senate Bill 2317 does not address all the unnecessary burdens placed on nonpublic schools in North Dakota, but it is a welcome first step.