Principles for Education Reform
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference

January 2017

I am writing this column a few days after Governor Doug Burgum’s first State of the State Address, in which the new governor called for substantial changes and a “reframing” of the state’s educational system. By the time this column is published, we will be celebrating Catholic Schools Week. Perhaps it is time to review some principles about education from a Catholic perspective.

Education is a human right. The dignity bestowed upon every human person extends not only to the person’s life, but also to the full potential of the human person. Like food, shelter, health care, and work, access to education is essential and the lack of it offends the dignity of the human person. This principle should serve as the reference point for all discussions regarding education policy. Keeping it in mind will help create a policies focused on the common good and the human person, rather than narrow interests like test results and economic production.

Parents have a primary right and duty to educate their children in matters of religious education and morals. This duty to educate cannot be neglected or delegated. Parents cannot leave the religious and moral education of your children to the priests, nuns, religious education directors, Catholic schools, or youth ministers. They may help, but the primary responsibility rests with the parents.

Parents have a right and duty to educate their children in all matters that are not uniquely religious or moral. We cannot separate religion and morality from other fields of knowledge. Thus, the parents’ right to educate extends to education in general, and not just matters of religion and morals. This right is “irreplaceable and inalienable” and cannot be completely delegated to others.

Parents are the first educators, not the only educators, of their children. Some parents seem content to turn over more and more of the responsibility to civil authorities. Other parents view their place as “first educators” as absolute, giving very little or no role to government or church authorities in the education of their children. The Church, however, recognizes that parents must exercise their responsibility “in close and vigilant cooperation with civil and ecclesial agencies,” noting that both government and churches play necessary parts in the task of educating children.

Parents have a right to choose the educational means that best reflect their convictions. In short, this means that parents have a right to choose whether to send their children to public schools, nonpublic schools, or to educate them at home.

Public authorities have the duty to guarantee this right and ensure the concrete conditions necessary for it be exercised. To put it another way, public subsidies for education must be allocated so that parents are truly free to exercise their right to choose the educational setting for their children without incurring unjust burdens. A just public education system provides education for all children, no matter where they are educated. Government, therefore, should financially support home education and nonpublic schools. In addition, government should not interfere with, or place burdens on, the ability of parents to choose among public schools.

Consider first the poor. Every proposal should be judged first on how it impacts the poor. It should be no secret that education is key to giving the state’s poorest children, especially on the reservations, a chance to overcome poverty. Many parents simply cannot afford to exercise their right to choose the best school for their children. Reforms should start by giving them a real choice.

Catholic doctrine on education is basically a call to solidarity and empowerment. All of the community works together, in their respective roles, to assist the parents as the primary, but not sole, educators of their children. In this way, the task of education does not exclude or usurp anyone. Instead, all our called to help ensure that the dignity of every child is respected so that every child can develop to his or her full potential, just as God intended.

At the same time, respecting parental choice empowers parents to be more involved in the children’s education and calls upon public officials to better respect parents and the uniqueness of every child.

It remains to be seen what Governor Burgum will propose to, as he says, “lead the way in education across America.” Everyone involved, however, could benefit from keeping in mind these universal truths the Catholic Church acknowledges as fundamental when it comes to educating our children.