I would like to see public education improve, and I would like to see Catholic and other religious schools survive. So I have a simple principle to propose: Public money for public schools, private money for private schools. That way, entrepreneurs would stop picking the public's pocket for their enrichment, and philanthropists would be encouraged to support effective and worthy religious schools, especially those (like Catholic schools) that have helped poor and working-class families and children. The survival of inner-city Catholic education now hangs in the balance, and only private money can save it. And should.
This is a key underlying point. All the private money that's going into policy debates, prizes, etc. could have simply gone into private schools serving low-income populations, whether you like Catholic Schools (which, among other things, already have real estate) or small progressive schools like Community Prep in Providence (celebrating its 25th year!). I would have preferred that to the hostile takeover of the public sphere we've been experiencing.
We both recall that John Dewey wrote that what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child is what the community should want for all its children. That's a good starting point. What does the best and wisest parent want for his or her own child?
Certainly, that parent would want a school with small classes, which guarantees that her child would get personal attention. Class size is a pretty good indicator of what most people mean by quality. If you visit the most elite private schools, you can bet that they don't have 32 students in a class. On the Web sites of such schools, one learns that classes are typically 12 to 15 students to a teacher. Such luxury is unheard of in most public schools, with the possible exception of schools in tony suburbs. Many of those who pronounce that class size doesn't matter send their own children to schools with small classes.
Another indicator of quality is the presence of the arts. The best and wisest parent would not want his child to go to a school with no teachers of music, art, dance, or other arts. Yet we know that in most of our public schools today, the arts have been sacrificed to make more time for test-prepping.
One more point: That wise parent would demand schools that were physically attractive and well-maintained. He or she would not tolerate the neglect, deterioration, and obsolescence that we see so often in our schools. There are lots of other things that our mythical best-and-wisest parent would insist upon, but these three points, I think, are indisputable, and a good starting point.
This is the most effective counter-argument we've got.