31 May 2011

Catholic Education in America: Homeschooling is Not the Problem

at Catholic Online


The 2010-11 school year marked my first as a homeschooling mom.  For two years our daughters had attended Catholic schools, but this school year was the grand opening of the Hartline Academy for Girls.  It’s been challenging, rewarding, frustrating at times, a steep hill to climb some days, but a blessing for all of us and we have no regrets.

I was quite dismayed – rather irritated, actually – to read the article in Our Sunday Visitor recently regarding the conflict between homeschool families in Texas and Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, as well as Ned Vanders , superintendent of Catholic Schools.

It centers on a belief that Catholic parents are obligated to send their children to Catholic schools if there’s a school in their area, and parents who do not are guilty of abrogating that obligation.  In other words, parents who choose to homeschool are committing a grave offense against Catholic schools.

The Holy Family Homeschoolers Association had invited Bishop Vasquez to celebrate a blessing Mass with them at the beginning of the next school year.  Curiously, the response didn’t come from the Bishop’s office but from Ned Vanders. 

He wrote:  “Bishop Vasquez received your invitation to celebrate a Eucharistic liturgy for the fall home-schooling blessing Mass.  Bishop Vasquez believes Catholic education, and in particular Catholic school education, is an essential part of the life of the Diocese of Austin.  As you know, Catholic schools are at the heart of the mission of the Church.  Bishop’s presence at the homeschooling Mass would convey a contradictory message equating the importance of Catholic school education with Catholic home schooling; therefore, Bishop Vasquez must respectfully decline the invitation.  Sincerely in Christ, Ned F. Vanders, E.D.”

Respectfully, there was nothing respectful about Mr. Vanders’ reply.  It was a thinly-veiled snobbish attack on the integrity of homeschoolers, the right of parents to make such a choice, and the validity of Catholic homeschooling.  It was insulting and dismissive.  And it still baffles me why Bishop Vasquez did not respond himself.  I sincerely hope the Bishop does not share Vanders’s views on Catholic homeschooling.

(OSV reported that the Diocese of Austin declined interview requests for Vanders and Bishop Vasquez.)

It’s disturbing that the Diocese of Austin has intentionally created an “us-versus-them” atmosphere regarding homeschooling families.  The OSV article went on to quote Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation.  Fr. Stravinskas is also not very supportive of homeschooling families.

Fr. Stravinskas says “the Church Fathers made clear that catechesis is the job of the whole Church, with the main responsibility resting on the shoulders of the pastor, not the parents.”  I did a double-take upon reading that one, because it seems to me that runs contrary to Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education which states that parents are the primary educators of their children.  No pastor can replace parents, and no parish can substitute for the child’s home.  Children will live what they’ve been taught to live at home.  If the Faith is lived and taught within the family, chances are good the children will “catch” it and nurture that Divine Love for themselves.  If home is a place where God and the Church are neglected or blasphemed, well, the children will surely catch that, too.

Fr. Stravinskas also says that “Catholic parents who choose to homeschool when there is a Catholic school available at least implicitly send the message that they do not trust the Church to educate their children properly, and the children get that message.  That leads to a subtle anti-clericalism because the children learn that priests cannot be counted on to hand on the faith.  It shows in what he sees as a dearth of vocations from homeschool families.  ‘Why would you want to join the club if its members can’t be trusted to do their jobs?’”

First, I’d like to know exactly how many vocations are coming from Catholic school families compared with homeschool families.  I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the homeschoolers.  The homeschool families I know would be elated to have a future priest or nun among their children!  I sure would!

But mostly this is just a continuation of the theme that it’s the pastor’s job to teach children, not the parents.  I disagree.  God has entrusted three souls to my husband and me to raise and teach, and we will be held accountable for how well we passed on the Faith.  The buck stops with us first, not our pastor.

A few more thoughts:  How many priests or nuns are in the classrooms of Catholic schools around the country?  If educating the children is their primary job, then why is it the Catholic schools my girls attended rarely ever saw the pastor assigned to the Church next door?  Why is it the children only attended Mass about once every other month?  Fr. Stravinskas is partially correct in his insight that many parents do not trust the Church to educate their children, though I would clarify that the church distrusted is likely the local parish, not Holy Mother Church.  

When a Catholic school does not make daily Mass, or at least weekly Mass, a priority for the formation of its students, then something is very wrong.  It’s not a generic Christian education we’re after, but a Catholic one, and that means the Eucharist, the liturgy, Mary and the saints.  That means Mass.  At my children’s former school, Mass was more of a special occasion than the essence and foundation of the Faith.  Is that the catechesis I’m supposed to be satisfied with?

Finally, Fr. Stravinskas never really addresses the issue that begs to be confronted: the outrageous cost of Catholic education.  It is simply out of reach for most families.  Consider this: it cost us more money to put our daughter through 1st grade than it did for my husband to get a very demanding, high-tech Masters Degree from a major university.  Tuition for most Catholic elementary schools is just ridiculously expensive.  I’d wager that Fr. Stravinskas would declare the money well-spent because the quality of education is unmatched.  I would disagree again.

I am now using a homeschool curriculum that in my opinion far surpasses the curriculum used at our former Catholic school.  Not to mention the fact that homeschooling gives me the opportunity to tailor the instruction to each child, to emphasize what my child needs more, and quickly advance through what she needs less.  If I see my child struggling to understand something, we don’t just move on ahead like a classroom teacher must.  The goal is to learn, not just get through a textbook.

The religious instruction we’ve gone through at home this year has been better than the catechesis they received in previous years.  The reading, vocabulary, English, math, spelling, history and science have all been outstanding, very thorough and completely faithful to the Magisterium.

The reality is we educated both our girls at home this entire school year for the cost of ONE MONTH of Catholic school.   And we only had two school-aged kids at the time – what about the families with 4, or 5, or 6 children in school at once?  In my opinion, this is an abysmal failure on the part of the Church.  If Catholic parents are expected to send their children to Catholic schools, then the Church had better get serious about making education the number-one priority and stop burdening Catholic families with thousands upon thousands of dollars in tuition every year.

The Diocese of Wichita has proven it can be done.  They are presently the only diocese in the country where children of active parish members can receive a K – 12 education tuition-free!  What’s stopping every other diocese from doing the same thing?

Beyond the tuition, my husband and I honestly got sick to death of all the “extra” costs associated with the school.  We were required to purchase a certain amount of Scripp each month, plus participate in a Fundraising program (if we didn’t sell enough of the fundraising stuff, we’d be charged a couple hundred dollars to cover our cost).  School lunches, field trips, different uniforms for winter and summer, etc, it all added up to a lot of money, and it got very annoying very quickly. 

I’ll gladly admit I’m happy to be free of fundraising obligations, since I can’t stand having to sell people over-priced stuff they don’t need or want.  I’m happy to be saving lots of gas money each month since I’m not making two round-trips each day to a school 20 miles away.   I’m happy not to have to worry about $40 sweaters getting lost or stolen.  I’m very happy not to be forced to change my shopping habits in order to purchase $200 of Scripp each month that I don’t really want.  I wanted a Catholic education for my kids, not all these expensive and crazy requirements.

I’m not trying to bash Catholic schools; I fully believe there are many excellent Catholic schools out there, and I want to see Catholic schools thrive.  I don’t disagree at all that Catholic schools are essential to the Church and the mission of our time.  We’re open to enrolling our kids in a great Catholic school in the future, if possible.

But if Fr. Stravinskas, Ned Vanders and Bishop Vasquez are going to insist that Catholic parents have an obligation to send their children to Catholic schools; if they’re going to dismiss the validity of homeschooling and impugn the motives of homeschooling parents, then it’s high time they faced reality and dealt with the legitimate reasons why many of us have chosen to teach our children at home.

We’re not trying to undermine the Church or our pastor’s authority.  We love the Church.  We want our children to become priests and nuns and faithful Catholic adults.  We’re not the enemy of Catholic schools – we are Catholic schools.

5 comments:

carmelitemom said...

Wonderful post Jenny! Bless you for decision to homeschool. I have been on both sides of the spectrum and love homeschooling my youngest despite the multitude of schools around me.~Theresa

kari l b said...

I absolutely agree on every point! We choose to home school our children because we knew we could not afford to send them all to Catholic school and we did not want to limit our family size in order to afford their Catholic education. However, after pulling our oldest out of our Parochial school after kindergarten we discovered that she was getting a much better Catholic education in our own home. The blessings have far outweighed the financial benefits and we would not go back now even if we could afford it!

Angoraknitter said...

I'm shocked at the Diocese of Austin! Our parish preist (and the whole diocese as best I can tell) are very supportive of the area's catholic homeschoolers. And we do have a wonderful school at our church. If I could afford it, and if they had the ability to provide my son with the special education he needs I would be happy to send my children there. As it is we participate with the school's Boy Scout troop, and this year we were brought into the fold with the school children for the first penance and eucharist sacramental festivities. They make us always feel welcomed, and the school and the homeschoolers co-exist just fine. Neither need be a threat to the other.

Sarah said...

Lurker here. I am stunned reading this.

1. I went to Catholic elementary school in VA. I can list off every single teacher's name I had. I cannot tell you who the priest was. This is a widespread problem.

2. The cost IS a huge hindrance. Parents do not "owe" the Church this tuition. How insulting. Is he totally out of touch with family life? Does he realize the costs and demands of living in the US? With the sacrifices that come with being open to life and thus having larger families? With the fact that a priest's sense of being respected by parishioners isn't his parishioner's first calling in life?

4. And what of the kids in public school? Would a bishop refuse to bless them too?

3. I've often seen parents give their kids a better education than the local Catholic school (which is usually the same as the public school curriculum). I remember interviewing to teach at a local Catholic school and being told that the religion teacher for the past 20 years at this school *was not Catholic.* Yes, some Catholic schools are excellent but many are not.

Sorry to rant/vent.

Anonymous said...

I was saddened to read your post. I live in a wonderful parish with an excellent school. We have Dominican sisters and our new priests seem very involved. They even greet the kids at the door. However, this only makes it harder when you can't afford to send your kids. I am in the situation of knowing that if I don't send my kids they probably will miss out and yet the cost of all four is undoable and we would have to limit the size of our family. Yet, our teachers deserve to make a good salary! It is not an easy situation for anyone. Except, maybe for a Bishop to bless a homeschooling group. Have a great year!

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