Education reform is shaping up as a signature topic of the 2015-16 session, as both Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders have begun to suggest ways to improve educational quality and close the achievement gap.
Like other political debates, the issue of education reform gets tangled in politics and mired in what often appear to be false dichotomies. Yet, the social teaching of the Catholic Church offers principles that could help Minnesota lawmakers untangle the rhetoric and pass meaningful education reform this year.
"[T]here must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information . . ." (Gaudium et Spes, 26).
Historically, education has been a ladder out of poverty. Unfortunately, today's children are increasingly less prepared to lead productive, financially stable and virtuous lives, even though our schools are spending more money to educate them.
Overall, fewer children have access to the education they need to flourish in a complex economy. This trend should be a cause of concern for everyone; high school drop-out rates, disparities in mathematics and poor grammar and reading proficiency numbers ultimately affect every aspect of social well-being and the common good.
"The demands of the common good are dependent on the social conditions of each historical period and are strictly connected to respect for and the integral promotion of the person and his fundamental rights" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1907).
The educational achievement gap in Minnesota violates the common good because it systematically impedes racial minorities from reaching their full potential and flourishing as part of the greater society.
Minnesota's achievement gap for reading -- the measurement of achievement between white students and students of color -- is one of the highest in the nation. In mathematics, Minnesota is not doing much better compared to many other states.
The social consequences of leaving kids behind are predictable: increased poverty, crime and incarcerations; and decreased standard of living and quality of life.
The problems plaguing today's educational system are not limited to disparities between white students and students of color. Some children with special needs or disabilities find it difficult to learn in their local school setting, and recommended alternatives or therapies remain out of reach due to staffing shortages or high out-of-pocket costs for families.
Other parents are finding their values undermined or outright contradicted by their child's school.
"Parents have the right to choose the formative tools that respond to their convictions and to seek those means that will help them best to fulfill their duty as educators. . . . Public authorities have the duty to guarantee this right and to ensure the concrete conditions necessary for it to be exercised" (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, 240).
Parents give their children life and, therefore, have a serious moral obligation for their care and upbringing, of which education is a vital part. Yet, parents cannot do what is in the best interests of their child if they are not given the appropriate options.
Though parents are the first educators of their children, government, faith communities, businesses and schools all play a role and have an interest in the education, success and social contributions of every child.
Blessed Pope Paul VI stated in Gravissimum Educationis that "[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 of which, as man, he is a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share."
The education debate often sees public and private education pitted against one another, as if they are competing entities. Yet, both traditional public and private schools share the same fundamental goal: fulfilling the fundamental right of every person to be educated.
Although the church does not call on government to provide all things for all people, it does assert that, as a matter of justice, government should establish the appropriate conditions that provide equity and access to education opportunity.
Zittlow is associate director for communications at the Minnesota Catholic Conference.