Impact of Education Reform on Private Education

Commentary by Dr. Charles J. O’Malley

Back in the late 1980’s, Dr. Chester Finn (then-Assistant Secretary, Office of Educational Research and Improvement) and I co-sponsored a national conference on the impact of education reform on private K-12 education. Representatives from national and state private school associations, state departments of education, national public policy groups, e.g., National Governors’ Association, and the Education Commission of the States, private school principals whose schools had been selected as “exemplary schools” through the U.S. Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon School Program came together to discuss how private school leaders could become involved in efforts to improve America’s schools.

The concepts of charter schools and public school choice — then in their infancy — were discussed. U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos, keynoting the conference, warned private school leaders that elements of the reform movement, such as charter schools and public school choice, could have dire consequences on private education.

It appears Secretary Cavazos’ warning was prophetic, as data from an-about-to-be-released report on charter schools indicate that a fairly significant number of parents are withdrawing their children from private schools and enrolling them in charter schools. I believe it would be safe to state that if the report were to have encompassed public school choice, magnet schools and real or perceived improvements in public education, the numbers of students leaving private schools for public schools would be considerably higher.

As we’ve stated on previous occasions, the rapid development of charter schools and public school choice programs places private school leaders in a very precarious position — right on the tip of the horns of a dilemma.

Parental choice is the life’s blood of private education. The ability of parents to choose the best education for their children and the competition engendered among private schools to “recruit” those children have enabled private schools to continue to flourish. However, the above study seems to indicate that parents are utilizing their power of choice by choosing tuition-free “semi-private” schools, i.e., charter and magnet schools, or they’re opting for the “new & improved”, more diverse selection of public schools.

How will private school leaders respond to this crisis? Can they oppose broader choice when, historically, they have championed the cause of parental choice? Will private schools opt into the charter school movement? If they do, will they be required to relinquish the freedom and autonomy which have allowed them to maintain their raison d’etre? Will they allow legislators and policy makers to use charter school and public school choice programs as alternatives to full parental choice initiatives such as vouchers, tax credits, etc.?

I do not know the answers to these questions. However, given private education’s reluctance to work together for survival, I can’t say I’m overly optimistic.

(Originally published 1996 in Private Education Issues)

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That ‘L’ Word!

*Editor’s Note: republished from Today’s Catholic Teacher
written by Dr. Charles J. O’Malley

In last month’s post, I used the “L” word – not the one that was used in the last Presidential election – but the word “LOBBYIST“.

In so doing, I probably conjured visions of Catholic school teachers and administrators prowling the corridors of the state capitol building, chewing away on oversize cigars, with scheming, conniving leers on their countenances. Let me assure you – as a former teacher and administrator in Catholic schools, and as a former lobbyist on behalf of Catholic schools – that is not the case.

A good lobbyist provides accurate, useful information to legislators and legislative staff. This information is often the basis for a legislator making his or her decision upon a particular piece of legislation. Therefore, the responsibility of a good lobbyist is to develop a relationship with a legislator which is built upon trust and confidence.

In those areas where state Catholic conference offices operate, undoubtedly this type of relationship has been established. And. frequently, your diocesan superintendent’s office has been working diligently to establish such a relationship. But you can be an extremely valuable asset in this ongoing effort.


In all the civic/citizenship classes we as students have taken, we are taught that our own personal awareness and involvement are important if we wish to preserve our freedom. While that may have seemed to be “just book learnin’” at the time we were in school, it is a necessity today. Local papers, education publications and bulletins from the state legislature which frequently update legislation of concern to you, should be part of your daily readings and discussions – and the topics of “bull sessions” with your students. Too frequently, you receive “to arms!” calls from your leadership, asking you to have your students’ parents contact their lawmakers on a particular issue – an issue about which you or the parents have little or no knowledge. It is difficult to make an impression on a lawmaker or staff person if you don’t know what’s going on.


Catholic schools have historically turned out well-educated, well-rounded students with sound moral values – including humility. However, unless that humility is tempered a little bit, there may not be a Catholic school system. If you don’t “blow your own horn”, no one else will!

Encourage key policy makers and/or their staff to visit your classroom. Have them discuss with your students (and parents) “how they made it and what their education did for them. Have them judge debates and speech or essay contests, or preside over “mock” court procedures, mini-legislatures, or present them with awards for their contributions to your school or community. Somehow, reporters and photographers seem to find out about these presentations – and, lo and behold, St. Good School is generating favorable publicity. And, your lawmaker knows about your school – and Catholic schools in general, when legislation comes before them. If the legislation could be damaging to Catholic schools, they can contain or eliminate the damage. If it is beneficial, they can serve as “champions” on your behalf.


Alumni(ae) and parents of your students are fantastic resources. Many of them are probably “politically” active, or serve as staff to lawmakers and cabinet officials, or have served on political campaigns for those now in office. They know the “system” and how it works. What they may not know is what you are up to or what the needs of the school are – or how a particular piece of legislation may impact you. Keep in contact. Do not wait until the 12th hour before bringing them into the fray. They may resent the fact that you are placing them in a difficult position without ample preparation. And, they’ll be reluctant to help you next time around. Thank them – publicly, if possible – whether you win or lose.

These are just a few uncomplicated ways that you as a classroom teacher or administrator can help maintain your school and the tradition of Catholic education. You do not have to prowl the legislative chambers, holding the oversize cigar. You do not have to spend lots of money to promote your issue. All you have to do is to remain aware and knowledgeable, let people know how good a job you are doing, and utilize the vast resources you and your colleagues have at your disposal. However, if you really want to get active, we’ll have some suggestions for you in the next post.

Good luck in this battle which must be won!

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Don’t Be Afraid to Rock the Boat

*Editor’s Note: republished from Today’s Catholic Teacher
written by Dr. Charles J. O’Malley

Over the last seven years I’ve been privileged to discuss with you a variety of issues, ranging from parental choice to changes in Federal program participation. We’ve discussed how you, as teachers and administrators in Catholic schools can be effective “lobbyists” , and what impact or effect recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Aguilar v. Felton and Agostini v. Felton) will have on you and your students. We’ve discussed the importance of your “hanging in there” by continuing to fight for what is rightfully due you and your students.

While attending teacher/administrators’ conferences, I’ve received many questions and comments regarding the efficacy of participating in Federal programs. Too much paper work; too many difficulties in getting services for eligible students; too many difficulties in determining eligibility of low-income students; too difficult to find classroom space for Title 1 instruction; too difficult to (you fill in the blanks).

In the 33 years since the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a very considerable amount of “blood, sweat , toil and tears” has been expended by Catholic school leaders, administrators, government officials, and others to ensure that equitable and high-quality instructional services are provided your students. Your predecessors have overcome obstacles such as the reluctance of some school district officials to provide services to Catholic school students, the inequities brought about by the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Aguilar v. Felton, and, more recently, the inequities resultant from the 1994 reauthorization of Title 1.

In mid-July of this year the U.S. Department of Education transmitted to Congress a Congressionally-mandated report on the effects of the changes brought about by the 1994 reauthorization. The results of the study seemed to surprise the authors and some within the U.S. Department of Education, although those who have been involved in fighting for equitable services for Catholic school children found the results gave credence to their claims of inequitable services.

Foremost among the findings were data showing glaring discrepancies between what local school district administrators reported regarding consultation with private school administrators and participation of private school children in Title 1 programs, and “reality”.

What’s all this leading up to? Two issues become paramount. The first is that of reauthorization of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (ECIA – formerly the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965). The U.S. Department of Education has convened open hearings on the effectiveness of Title 1, and soon Congress will be determining whether Title 1 should be re-funded — and — if re-funded to what extent and with what changes. There’s discussion of returning to a “block grant” concept, i.e., the Federal government sending the Federal dollars to the states, and letting the states determine how the dollars should be spent. If Congress so determines, will the rights of private school students be protected? Will there be battles in each state over the extent to which private school children participate? Will you have the opportunity to select the most effective program for you eligible students, i.e., choosing between a third-party contractor such as READS, Sylvan, Education Inroads, etc., and a teacher assigned your school by the school district? Will the criterion of “poverty” remain as a major determinant of eligibility? If so, will the number of your students eligible to participate continue to decline?

The second paramount issue is a little more delicate to broach. Essentially, the issue is the commitment of you Catholic school teachers and administrators to fight to maintain your participation in Title 1 and in other governmental programs.

The U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Catholic Conference, state Catholic conferences and dioceses have prepared materials which provide “thumbnail” sketches of the programs, what services are available, how to obtain these services, and what you can do if the local school districts are reluctant to provide quality and equitable services.

It involves you being willing to be aggressive to find out what you need to do in order to receive the services for you students. That means you will not necessarily accept “meaningless” proffers from the public school authorities. For example, back in the late 1960’s, in the early years after the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Catholic school student involvement was typically as follows:

“Sister, if you sign off on this form, our school district will provide your teachers and administrators with copies of materials developed through our project. We’ll even provide them free of charge.”

“Sister, we called your office in late July to advise you of a meeting we’re having on August ..??. However, no one answered, so we thought you wouldn’t be interested.”

“Father, we are opening the new media center we built using the Federal money we received. We are having a punch and cookies reception Sunday afternoon. Please come.”

“We can provide Title 1 services to your students. However, they will have to come to our schools in order to receive them…(other options: services to your students will have to be delivered after school or in the summer.)”

In the early 1970’s, the tone began to change. Firm, aggressive positions held by representatives of U.S. Catholic Conference, state conferences, dioceses which employed full-time governmental program directors (“hired guns”, as many of them were called), and eventually the U.S. Office of Education (before it became a department) resulted in fairly good services being provided to eligible private school students. Unfortunately, we lost considerable ground after the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court’s Aguilar v. Felton decision. Again, it took firm, aggressive action by the U.S. Catholic Conference, state Catholic conferences and diocesan administrators and the U.S. Department of Education to keep those losses at a minimum.

In 1994, Congress, during the reauthorizaton process, made several major changes in the Title 1 formula. Title 1 became a program focusing on poverty rather than educational need. Eligibility was based on participation in programs such as the School Lunch program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and similar poverty-indexed programs. Since most Catholic — and private schools do not participate in these programs, Catholic school administrators were unable to determine eligibility for their students, resulting in a significant decrease in their participation. Administrators were understandably reluctant to serve as collectors of census data or sensitive family income information to document their students’ eligibility. As the program became more complex, Catholic. school administrators and teachers decided the “minimum” returns were not worth the effort, so they dropped out of the fight


I’ve previously referred to the need for “aggression” on your parts. Ask your diocesan superintendent to schedule briefings on federal programs for you and your colleagues. Know what services your students are eligible to receive. Know what recourse you have if the public school officials are reluctant to work with you. Be willing to fight for what is rightfully yours. Don’t feel “guilty” if a public school official accuses you of taking money away from “needy” public school children. Please remember two very important facts.

1. Public school districts receive their Title 1 allocations based on a number of criteria, including total number of school age children. This number includes your students — which means that your students are basically generating their own dollars. They are not taking dollars away from public school children.

2. The odds are many of your students — particularly those graduating from Catholic elementary school — will be going on to public junior or senior high school. It’s not “private vs. public”. It’s children who need services.

In conclusion, you Catholic school administrators and teachers can make a difference in whether your students receive their fair share of quality educational services. The degree to which this happens depends on how willing you are to enter the frey. For the sake of your students and in the memory of those who gave so much of themselves 1965 to provide you with these opportunities, learn what your fair share is. Then, get in there and fight for it! Your students and their parents deserve your best efforts. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat! Godspeed!

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