Dear EP: I was at a potluck with some friends last Saturday. We all have elementary school kids and most of us were Catholic. Sometime after the last pulled-pork sandwich was eaten but before dessert came out, the moms all jumped into the topic of education. We homeschool. Another couple sends their kids to the local Catholic school, and one uses public schools. The conversation got a little tense and the guys went for some more beers and to throw a disc outside. We homeschool, and I feel good about it. Honestly, though, when talking education with other Catholics, we end up sounding like what I imagine Protestants would sound like, quibbling over whose denomination is really the best.

Ethika Politika
(Mattias) replies: Ha! Had I been there, I'd have gladly cracked open a cold one with you.

Look, let's take a step back and appreciate that we live in a time of extraordinary educational freedom and choices. As parents, we all take the education of our children seriously, and given how much our media and politicians talk about education, too, it's clear that as a society we value it, and are largely capable to provide it. In human history, that's unique. And honestly, it's a pretty great mercy.

So, we have options. And we should try to treat those as positively as we can, keeping in mind their limitations. Start with the "big block" — public education. Whether we choose it for our kids or not, our government-funded schools are the linchpin of our education industry. That's not going to change anytime soon. There are phenomenal teachers and administrators all throughout the country giving generously in a job that frankly pays too little, is short on resources, and is not appreciated as it should be. As Catholics, I do believe we have an obligation as we engage society to support the efforts our culture has chosen to educate and to form young people. In short, we should stress the positives and importance of public education.

Now whether or not it's the best choice for our children is a sticky wicket. We know it's hard to separate current cultural trends (especially in the area of sexual mores) from pedagogy. It's about more than just values. It's a fundamental view of the human person. Public schools offer opt-outs to sex education, but is that enough? Having gone through public education, more than twenty-five years ago, I didn't think the opt-out was enough then and it's not enough now. But you can't beat many of the options for academic, social, and sports programs that your local public school offers. And lots of Catholics send their kids to the public schools and everyone turns out okay. But there's a real, inescapable downside. 

Homeschooling has really exploded over the last forty years. If you ever meet a homeschooling parent from the 70s and 80s, they feel like a pioneer, loading up their educational wagons and doing it all to launch their children into an adult world where homeschoolers couldn't get no respect. That's admirable. It was also very American in its "can do" attitude. Since then, homeschooling has evolved. It's become more universal, more "catholic," if you will. There's a growing sense of the need to create communities of support. This runs the gamut: choices in curriculum, parish groups for support, and emerging educational choices such as online courses and parent-run co-ops. It's exciting, but it's also a bit daunting because so many of the educational choices — that are always multiplying and more complex — are thrust back onto parents.

Here's probably an area where the institutional Church could provide more guidance and support. We're not there yet, but it's worth noting that despite the myriad of choices, parents can realistically be overwhelmed — and uncertain — about what to do.

Last but not least we have a brick-and-mortor Catholic school, whether it is formally run by your local diocese, a religious order, or a group of lay faithful. When done well, Catholic schools are the best option. Parents can partner with an institution that places the formation of their child's mind and character at the center of a truly catholic vision. Of course, such a task is not easy. Our schools, and the people who run them, are imperfect institutions. They'll always come up short. But when a child can spend his or her day in a loving Catholic environment, that's a real blessing.