For New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, it's a simple solution to overcrowded schools.
As New York's public schools bulge with 90,000 more students than desks this year, the mayor is considering an offer from local Roman Catholic schools to take some of those students off his hands. Church leaders are willing to take up to 1,000 of the city's lowest-performing students in return for public money for tuition.
The proposal puts New York at the center of a nationwide debate over where to draw the line between church and state in American education. The outcome is being closely watched for its implications for the growing school-choice movement.
Proponents say low-income parents should be able to take advantage of Catholic schools, which seem to do a better job at teaching poorly performing children. But others say that giving public money to religious institutions violates the US Constitution and undermines the concept of an equitable education system.
Mayor Giuliani (R), a product of parochial schools, calls it an "excellent proposal." For now the proposal remains in limbo as City Hall and archdiocese officials hammer out some of the details. Still to be resolved are questions of where the money will come from and how much religious instruction students will receive.
Advocates say it would provide low-income parents with choices affluent parents have long had.
"Catholic schools provide better discipline, they have moral cohesion and better parental involvement, and they ... can be held accountable for their results," says Sol Stern, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. "By contrast, public schools have an incentive for failure. The more you fail, the more money you get to solve the problem."
Evidence that Catholic schools do a better job is mounting. A 1990 study by the Rand Corporation found that only 25 percent of New York's public school students graduated and only 16 percent took the Scholastic Assessment Test for college admission. By contrast, 95 percent of Catholic school students graduated, and 75 percent took the SATs. (The study tracks results from the 9th grade up, and may not count the number of students weeded out of parochial schools in lower grades for poor performance.)
Despite these better results, most Americans oppose giving public money to pay private-school tuitions. But this resistance is beginning to wane. In a recent Gallup poll, 36 percent of those polled favored "allowing students and parents to choose a private school [including parochial] to attend at public expense," up from 33 percent in 1995 and 25 percent in '93.
Some educators say the New York plan, like voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and San Antonio, is a sign that parents are dissatisfied with public schools. "Increased choice in schools is more or less inevitable," says Richard Elmore, an education professor at Harvard University. "As society becomes more complex, there is increasing pressure from parents on the public school system to provide more flexibility."
Yet critics argue that the Constitution forbids public support for church activities. "Society can't close its eyes to the idea of the separation of church and state," says Norman Siegel, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "If government favors one religion over another, it leads to divisiveness between religions."
Some educators, and even some members of Giuliani's own school board, call the church's proposal an extreme example of a voucher. Under the current plan, the city would send a check to the archdiocese rather than to individual parents, and Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and even secular private schools are excluded.
But Debbie Meier, a former public school principal and now a fellow at the Annenberg Institute in New York, says the church's proposal may challenge public schools to improve: "Catholic schools are smaller, they know parents better, and they keep on top of things."