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ABC'S of School Choice: Private Education Has Fans in Rich and Poor Nations Alike

LONDON, NOV. 2, 2003 (Zenit) - Divisions over the role of private education have surfaced once more in England. In mid-October a Conservative Party Member of Parliament, Oliver Letwin, said he would rather beg on the streets rather than send his daughter to the local state-run school. This led to strong criticism of Letwin from the governing Labor Party.

This week the shoe was on the other foot. The London daily Telegraph on Tuesday reported that Labor Party MP Diane Abbott, described as left-wing, received support from her party after it was revealed she had decided to educate her son in a 10,000-pound-a-year ($17,000) private school. The Telegraph noted that in the past Abbott had criticized Prime Minister Tony Blair and Solicitor General Harriet Harman for sending their children to private schools, instead of selecting the local state-run institutions.

Splits over the public or private question become more acute when the religious factor comes into play. An Oct. 14 commentary by Francis Beckett in the British daily Guardian claimed that faith-based schools foster intolerance and violence.

Beckett particularly criticized Muslim schools, alleging that they help foment a culture that condones violence. He also condemned Jewish schools, accusing one of them of being a breeding ground of racist jokes. Christian institutions did not escape his ire. He accused the 5,000 Church of England and the 2,000 Catholic schools of fomenting intolerance. "The religious zealotry that fuels conflicts all over the world, from Northern Ireland to the Middle East, is nurtured in faith schools, even though their teachers often try hard to inculcate tolerance" he argued.

On Oct. 28 the Anglican bishop of Portsmouth, Kenneth Stevenson, replied in the Guardian to Beckett's commentary, arguing that it was "full of innuendo and extrapolation, and therefore highly misleading." Stevenson also observed that local authorities control half the Anglican schools and that pupils are admitted regardless of their religion.

Christian values

Earlier this year, debate flared in the United States after Education Secretary Roderick Paige stated that he believes schools should teach Christian values. Paige made his comments to the Baptist Press, the Washington Post reported April 9.

A long-standing critic of religion in public life, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called upon Paige to either correct his comments or to resign. But Paige's press secretary Dan Lengan rejected the call, commenting: "Secretary Paige's deep faith has helped him to overcome adversity, to find clarity and has sustained him throughout his life."

William Bennett, U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988, wrote an article in the April 13 Washington Post defending Paige. "[V]alues that were born of or nurtured by the Christian faith -- form a strong basis for good citizenship in school and beyond," he said.

Vatican II guidelines

Conflicts over whether education should be public or private, lay or religious, have been around for a long time. The Second Vatican Council declaration on Christian education, "Gravissimum Educationis," laid out a number of principles to guide Christian education. Among the guidelines adopted by Vatican II are the following points:

-- Everyone has an inalienable right to an education. A true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies.

-- All Christians have a right to a Christian education. This does not merely strive for the maturing of a human person but has the goal of enabling the baptized to become more aware of the gift of faith they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth.

-- Parents are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.

-- Among all educational instruments the school has a special importance. It is designed not only to develop with special care the intellectual faculties but also to form the ability to judge rightly, to hand on the cultural legacy of previous generations, to foster a sense of values, to prepare for professional life.

-- Parents have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children and must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools. Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.

-- The Church esteems highly those civil authorities and societies which, bearing in mind the pluralism of contemporary society and respecting religious freedom, assist families so that the education of their children can be imparted in all schools according to the individual moral and religious principles of the families.

-- The Catholic school pursues cultural goals and the human formation of youth. But its proper function is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity.

In developing countries

The importance of private education is not limited to the developed world, noted James Tooley, professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Writing in Wednesday's edition of the Financial Times, Tooley noted that the meeting held this week in Edinburgh, Scotland, by Commonwealth ministers of education should have taken more seriously how private education can help to meet needs in poorer countries.

He explained that even in areas of urban slums, more and more poor parents are sending their children to private schools, where fees might be $2 a month or less. In the Indian city of Hyderabad, for instance, 61% of the children attend private schools, according to his research.

He also quoted an Oxfam education report that says that private schools for the poor are emerging and that these schools are superior to government schools. An Indian government report revealed that when researchers made unannounced visits, they found teaching activity only in 53% of government-run schools. In contrast, investigators found an intense level of activity in private schools.

A study published earlier this year by U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) confirmed the importance of private education in developing countries. Reporting on the study, the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail noted Feb. 18 that there is strong evidence that improvements in the level of education boost economic growth.

"Education is increasingly considered an investment in the collective future of societies and nations, rather than simply in the future success of individuals," said the study entitled "Financing Education -- Investments and Returns."

To extend education more rapidly, many of the developing countries are looking beyond the state, the study revealed. In China and Paraguay more than 40% of the money spent on education comes from the private sector; an average of one in six primary school students attend private schools. The study noted that these figures surpass the OECD averages for private education in richer nations. Without doubt the state has a valuable role to play in education. But allowing room for private institutions gives parents more flexibility and boosts the common good.

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