Quitting at the Tipping Point: Why Now Is Not The Time to Give Up on Urban Catholic Schooling

In his 2000 book of the same name, Malcolm Gladwell described a “tipping point” as “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” It’s a phenomenon we see again and again in social movements and in policy change, and one that we may well be seeing in the fight for parental choice in general and for vouchers and tax credits in particular.

The idea of allowing parents to use state money to attend private or religious schools isn’t new. In fact, the first “public” schools in states across the country were unapologetically religious—run by Protestant societies and infused with religious (and often anti-Catholic) curriculum. It wasn’t until Catholics began to fight for equal funding for Catholic schools that the push to make public schools religiously neutral began.

But today, the question of whether public money can be used by parents to choose private or parochial schools is a hot button. And, while the fight for public school choice, in the form of charter school expansion, has exploded, the push to expand vouchers and tax credits has been slower. The first voucher law passed the same year as the first charter law, but today only 27 states and D.C. have access to private school choice in the form of vouchers or tax-credit scholarships, compared with 44 states and D.C. that have public charter schools.

Of course, past is not necessarily prologue. There is evidence that public support for and the expansion of charters is slowing just as support for private school choice is growing.

An Education Next public opinion poll revealed “support for charter schools dropped by 12 percentage points between 2016 and 2017.” In the same period, 55 percent of respondents supported tax credit scholarships and 45 percent supported vouchers. And the percent of respondents who oppose tax credits or vouchers dropped from 44 percent to 37 percent and from 29 to 24 percent, respectively.

Those shifts in public opinion may also be a catalyst for action in unlikely places. Take Illinois, for instance. Illinois school choice advocates had been fighting for tax credits for close to a decade. And virtually nobody thought that a state as blue (and as union-dominated) as Illinois would flip on a dime. Yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Illinois Republicans introduced the “Invest in Kids” amendment to an omnibus spending bill and, since the bill also included so much of what Democrats wanted, it passed. Gov. Bruce Rauner then signed into law one of the largest tax credit programs in the country.

Similarly, in Indiana in 2009, Catholic schools were struggling, and the fight for choice was stalled. In fact, the prospects for expanding choice were so grim that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis closed two urban Catholic schools and worked to allow them to reopen as charter schools. Then, just one year later, low- and middle-income parents won access to education tax credits through the Indiana School Scholarship Tax Credit, and the following year, 2011, they gained access to school choice vouchers through Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program. One diocesan leader explained, “if the voucher program had been around at that time, the archdiocese ‘would probably not have gone the charter route.’”

Each of these stories involves a tipping point moment. A point where momentum changed so much that something once thought impossible, happened.

Unfortunately, Catholic school leaders who have been fighting for their survival are continually dispirited. Perhaps no example is more poignant than that of Jubilee Catholic Schools network in Memphis. Jubilee Catholic schools is a network of nine urban Catholic schools that launched in 1999, reopening many previously closed Catholic schools, with the goal of providing low-income students a high-quality education. Earlier this year, after a Tennessee tax credit law failed, the diocese gave up, opting to shutter the entire network. Many hope the schools will reopen as charters, but the fact that disadvantaged parents in Memphis will no longer have the option to choose a Catholic education for their children is devastating.

If the theory of the tipping point teaches us anything, however, it’s that drastic change often comes when you least expect it. But also, Catholic school supporters must remember that we can’t tip forward unless we continue to push. We must, therefore, not give up but double down by embracing this new era of competition and change and by continuing our fight to grow and improve Catholic schools even as we struggle. Now is the time not for retreat, but for bold action.