The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 23, 2001 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

Picture sat on the desk two years

Voucher debate should focus on good of students, value of teachers

By Bishop Robert Banks

Last week, I had an interesting dinner table conversation with a teacher involved in special education in one of the Green Bay public schools. She made the mistake of asking me what I thought about school vouchers.

Since vouchers or, more specifically, parental choice in education is a subject on which I am somewhat passionate, she got more than a full answer to her question. Put briefly, my point is that our country has to be interested in the education of every child, including those whose parents choose a religious school. Parents should not lose the right to some assistance in educating their child as soon as the child registers in a religious school. The child is still an American child.

There was no argument. The teacher simply wanted to know my opinion, but also wanted to share with me her concern about the education being offered children today. So many children come to school today with special needs that more has to be done to help teachers and schools educate them.

She also wondered if Catholic schools in our diocese were able to help children with special needs. I told her that, back in Boston, I had made the mistake of telling a committee that our schools did not have the resources to help children with special needs. Several mothers on that committee had children with special needs. They quickly and strongly informed me that our Catholic schools could do a lot for children with special needs without any huge infusion of funds. We simply had to pay attention to the challenge.

So I now know that our schools can and do help many children with special needs. At the same time, it is also true that some children need very special assistance. If our schools were given financial assistance, then I presume we could also assist most of them. As a matter of fact, years ago, Sisters throughout the country ran a number of special schools for children with hearing problems and also children with mental and emotional difficulties. Now our country prefers to mainstream as many children as possible.

It is interesting that in a recent case the U.S. Supreme Court declared it constitutional for the government to pay for an interpreter for a hearing impaired youngster in a Catholic school. So we can help children with very special needs when we receive financial assistance.

The teacher also voiced a concern I have heard many times here, in Boston and elsewhere. If parents were able to choose any school for their children, then in the inner cities of our country, the good students would go to the religious schools and the public schools would have to deal with a larger proportion of students with problems.

There has been some limited research on that subject and my reading is that where there is a possibility of choice in those city areas, a substantial number of students with poor academic records end up in the Catholic schools. If it turned out otherwise, then I agree something would have to be done.

Then, of course, there is the oft-expressed concern that Catholic schools can expel troublesome students, while the public schools have to take them in. I don't know of any research done on this specific subject, but I do know that Catholic schools try very hard not to expel students and are known to have taken in students who have had to leave the public schools.

Good teacher is a treasure

I was very impressed by the sincere and serious interest my teacher friend had in the education of children in both kinds of schools. I hope she saw how interested I also am in the education of all our children. I admire what good schools and good teachers can do, especially in those city-areas where children do not have all the benefits that other children have. A good teacher - in public school or religious school - is a treasure.

Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who, about 20 years ago, taught in a Boston public school in a troubled area of the city. Her school provided an open classroom where the first five grades were taught by several different teachers.

A couple of months ago, she was visiting a Boston hospital and the receptionist greeted her by name. My friend was surprised, and the receptionist introduced herself as a former third grade student of hers.

Immediately, my friend remembered her. She was a girl who came from a dysfunctional family. My friend also remembered a conference with the girl's mother. On the way out from that conference, the mother threw some pictures drawn by the girl in the wastebasket. My teacher friend picked them up and put one of them on her desk where she kept it for all the time she taught in that school.

No work is throw-away

The next day, she showed the picture to the little girl. For the next two years, the girl would check to see if her picture was still there on the desk. My friend said she kept the picture there to show the little girl how important she was. She also kept it there to remind herself that no child's work deserves to be just thrown away.

Maybe the best part of the story is that the receptionist, at least 20 years later, was able to name all the teachers in that open classroom. She really surprised my friend when she asked if she still had that picture. My friend, who had been out of teaching for about 20 years, explained why she did not. The receptionist nodded her understanding and then said, "Those years were the best thing that ever happened to me."

I am sure that the teacher with whom I spoke last week also has students who regard being in her classroom as the best thing that has happened to them. And I am sure that there are many more teachers like her in our public schools and our religious schools. Wouldn't we be a better nation if our country made it possible to reward all those teachers equally? Or even almost equally?

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