Catholic Schools: Mission, Markets and Morality
reviewed by Richard Jacobs - 2003
Judged solely by its title, a book describing the challenges confronting inner-city Catholic headteachers [principals] in England would contain little between its front and back covers to interest public school administrators practicing their craft across the Atlantic Ocean in the United States. Although the academic mission may be the same, the context within which that mission is delivered to students differs as does its market. Arguably, the matter of religious education is one that has little to do with public schooling in the United States.
But Grace’s volume, Catholic Schools: Mission, Markets and Morality (2002, Falmer Press), challenges those notions and for reasons that may prove rather surprising for administrators of the nation’s public schools.
With the passage of England’s 1988 Education Reform Act and the 1992 Education (Schools) Act, the conservative ruling party achieved its long-standing goal of introducing an individualistic and competitive ethic into county [public] education. Market values and market culture as well as stronger forms of accountability would now factor into the school funding formula.
Central to the new ethic were parents who¾as consumers¾would have increased choice and a wider array of educational opportunities for their children because the increased autonomy that would be afforded to all maintained [publicly funded] schools would allow them either to differentiate themselves within their local education agency (LEA) [school district] or to opt out of it altogether. The ostensible goal of the legislation was to promote a market of autonomous and differentiated grant‑maintained (GM) [publicly funded] schools freed from LEA control. Self‑governing parents would exercise educational choice as consumers. Schools that did not provide what parents wanted for their children would close due to forces at work in the marketplace and those that did provide what parents wanted for their children would flourish as funds were redistributed from the “losers” to the “winners.”
The two acts held out a financial “carrot” to induce all schools¾including religious and other non-maintained schools¾to become GM schools. In fact, several years after the application of market values and culture to England’s educational system, GM schools had received an average of four times as much support from capital grants as mainstream schools (p. 184). The acts also included a “stick.” As a first step to remedy underperformance, “failing” schools would bear the harsh brunt of an official “naming and shaming” policy as their aggregate scores on standardized tests would be published alongside “successful,” “effective,” and “winning” schools. Publication of these tables connoted that failure was “the result of pedagogic slothfulness on the part of teachers and headteachers, and which implied that the schools as learning institutions were virtually worthless” (p. 174). Meanwhile, “successful, “effective,” and “winning” schools could trumpet themselves and their achievements not only as exemplars for emulation but also to attract parental notice, to increase enrollments and, of course, to receive additional grants.
For educators in the United States, Grace’s explanation about these outcomes provides an indication of just what might be around the corner if those politicians, policymakers, and pundits who are busy promoting the injection of an individualistic and competitive ethic into U.S. education ultimately prove successful. Public and nonpublic schools will be tempted to choose a new administrative and financial status for their schools, as did many Catholic and non‑maintained schools in England. After all, the GM option was unabashedly intended for those schools, in particular, to obtain funding equity for teachers and students. Moreover, those inner‑city public schools that deal with some of the most disadvantaged and impoverished youth, like their inner-city Catholic counterparts in England, may well be forced to bear the brunt of a “naming and shaming” policy. Although the policy may not bear that name which exposes its true intent, the publication of a failing school’s aggregate scores will wield a powerful sword indeed, perhaps culminating with an impalement viewed by those antagonistic to the present system and structure of public schools as self-inflicted.
Furthermore, the headteachers’ accounts of their “failing” schools and the actual impact the policy had upon them suggests that educators in U.S. inner-city public schools had better brace themselves for a slow, painful, and meandering march toward certain closure because “their struggles to improve academic achievement had to be accomplished against the grain of a local culture where large-scale unemployment had eroded confidence in education, motivation to succeed, and family stability and organization to provide the home conditions that would be supportive of learning” (p. 176). Even though these administrators wanted their schools to be “agencies of hope in communities assailed by despair” (p. 177), not only were their best efforts doomed from the start because of the new educational ethic introduced by the two acts, but the burden of blame was then laid squarely upon their shoulders.
If reading Grace’s study of the 60 headteachers offered those who are passionate about preserving U.S. public education clarity about how future events could unravel in the United States if proponents were successful in hatching and legislating various educational voucher, tuition tax credit, or other schemes intended to funnel public funds into nonpublic schools, this alone would make reading Grace’s volume well worth one’s effort. But there is more to commend this book to an audience supportive of U.S. public schooling which might believe that such a volume has very little to offer, judging solely by its cover.
A second matter, that of the emergence of an “ideology of parentocracy” (p. 188), may at first glance not seem all that far removed from what public school district superintendents and principals have had to learn to deal with since the inception of public schooling on U.S. soil and especially since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Acts (ADA) in 1990. Yet, the 1988 Education Reform Act and the 1992 Education (Schools) Act unleashed in England a particularly virulent form of parental interference in educational policy and not only inside of schools, which oftentimes proves troubling enough for principals and teachers. Having been empowered by law to choose between schooling alternatives for their children, parents were now more likely to choose the educational option maximizing the private benefit accruing to a child rather than the educational option according greater emphasis to fostering the common good.
What this meant in England, and in particular for Catholic parents who were making choices about what school they would enroll their children in, was that the cherished democratic goal of “active citizenship” which the two acts sought to unleash became in reality the action of a particular interest group of educated and middle-class parents motivated by and acting solely in the private interest of their children.
The power of educational choice unleashed by the two acts, now firmly rooted in the self-interest of a politically active middle class, trumped the sense of community as well as the ideal of providing a publicly-funded common school for all youth. And, who were the losers in the years following implementation of the acts? The losers were the poor and disadvantaged inner-city youth who need most the best of educational opportunities. And, how did they become the losers? Because some of the inner city Catholic schools that had previously demonstrated success with these students had to close as parents of the more capable of their children’s peers exercised the choice allowed by law to enroll their children in those schools affording greater educational opportunity.
This alone should give proponents of public education in the USA moment to pause, to assess what might well happen to inner-city public schools, and to redouble their efforts to ensure that poor and disadvantaged inner-city youth are not abandoned and left to fend for themselves in the marketplace.
One additional matter commends Grace’s book to those who are troubled by the potential forces that competition might unleash in the United States were market forces to determine the future of schools, both public and nonpublic. This third matter concerns the relationships between and among those who administer schools. As the competition for students (and, hence, public funds) increases, how might the patterns of interactions between principals change? Will these relationships be negatively impacted, that is, will the competition devolve into a form of “cut-throat,” “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” and “damn what this means for your school” form of competition? Or will the desire to educate youth and to “leave no child behind” transcend self-interest in a way that the relationships between principals will allow for autonomy and differentiation between schools yet forge an interdependent spirit of collaboration among administrators so that their collective decisions are steeped in what is best for each child and what also happens to be in the common good?
To this point, observers could only speculate about the answers to this question. But, Grace’s volume suggests that some of those who administrate schools will act like “market regulators,” seeking alternatives to the “winner/loser” emphasis implicit in the individualistic competitive relations that might otherwise flourish among market-based schools (p. 194). One ought not be optimistic and exercise prudence in this regard because, when it comes to forsaking much-needed funds to operate inner city schools, the notion that a principal would act like a market regulator would require an individual who is extremely dedicated to public education and possesses an ethic of altruism that would make it possible to justify forsaking funds not only because it may be in an individual student’s best interests to enroll elsewhere but also because a decision to forsake those funds may well negatively impact future enrollments if parents perceive the quality of that school to be waning. As Grace notes, in order to counteract the potential negative impacts that market forces unleash upon schools, administrators will have to learn how to collaborate with one another in various forms of covert subversion of market forces.
Gerald Grace’s Catholic Schools: Mission, Markets and Morality provides an excursus through three constitutive elements of the terrain that public school administrators may have to traverse if the proponents of market forces prevail in the United States, as may well happen. The experience of the 60 Catholic secondary school headteachers provides valuable instruction to public school administrators about the tensions, options, and politics that may unfurl themselves and threaten to entangle these administrators. And that is to say nothing about the many ways this volume commends itself to those whose primary interest is directed at securing public funds for U.S. Catholic schools.