Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Diocese of Austin: Homeschoolers Need Not Apply

Twenty years ago, when my parents began homeschooling first my younger brother (who had some non-standard learning needs) and later all of us, homeschooling was still very much a fringe phenomenon. It was not unusual for people to predict, on hearing that children were homeschooled, that they would not be able to get into college, or for neighbors to harass homeschoolers by repeatedly calling the truancy officers on them. The extent to which homeschooling has become mainstream since that time has been quite extraordinary, and due in no small part to the academic and personal successes that homeschooled students have shown themselves capable of. Many states' public education systems are now actively friendly towards homeschoolers, and make state curricula available free of charge to homeschoolers who wish to use them at home.

Sadly, one area where this increasing social acceptance of homeschooling has often been lagging is in Catholic circles at the parish and diocesan level. Homeschoolers are sometimes seen as a threat by parochial school systems -- this despite the Church's teaching that parents bear the primary responsibility as first educators of their children.

Such a situation has recently reared its head back in our old home diocese of Austin, Texas. A local Catholic homeschooling group, Holy Family Homeschoolers, sent an invitation to their annual Homeschoolers Blessing Mass to newly appointed Bishop Vásquez. In past years, an invitation had always been sent to the bishop. Bishop Aymond had officiated at the Blessing Mass when he first came to the diocese and had allowed a certain degree of openness in dealing with Catholic homeschoolers at the parish and diocesan levels.

Given the many demands on Bishop Vásquez's time, it is hardly surprising that he was unable to attend this year. What is, however, both surprising and distressing is that the response to the invitation sent to Bishop Vásquez's office came not from the Chancery but from the Catholic Schools Office, and in a tone which was decidedly dismissive:
> Bishop Vásquez received your invitation to celebrate a Eucharistic liturgy for the fall homeschooling blessing Mass.
>
> Bishop Vásquez believes Catholic education, and in particular Catholic school education, is an essential part of the life of the Diocese of Austin. As you know, Catholic schools are at the heart of the mission of the church.
>
> Bishop's presence at the homeschooling Mass would convey a contradictory message equating the importance of Catholic school education with Catholic homeschooling; therefore, Bishop Vásquez must respectfully decline the invitation.
>
> Sincerely in Christ,
>
> Ned F. Vanders, Ed.D.
Ned Vanders is the diocesan Superintendent of Catholic Schools, and I think that the above email pretty clearly backs up the complaint I have heard that he is "openly hostile to homeschooling".

Again, let me be clear: I think it is quite reasonable and understandable that Bishop Vásquez is unable to attend. A note from his office to that effect would in no sense be offensive. However, I think that the response that was received by the Holy Family Homeschoolers is worrisome in two senses.

First, it suggests that "Catholic education" means nothing other than institutional Catholic schools run by the diocese. Understand, Austin is not one of these diocese with a long and rich history of parochial schools. In a rapidly growing diocese of half a million Catholics in 125 parishes, it offers 17 elementary schools and 5 high schools, serving a mere 5,000 students. Clearly, the diocese is equipped to serve only a small minority of Catholic school-age children directly through its schools. One would think, under such circumstances, that the diocese would be especially eager to work with parents who take it upon themselves to provide a Catholic education to their children in the home. Instead, what we see is the claim that "Bishop's presence at the homeschooling Mass would convey a contradictory message equating the importance of Catholic school education with Catholic homeschooling."

Surely, Catholic education is something more than a particular 22 institutions in the diocese, serving a small fraction of the diocese's children. Catholic education includes not merely those 22 schools, but also the religious education programs in all 125 parishes, and also the efforts of those parents who, in the spirit of the Church's teaching that they are the primary educators of their children, take on the responsibility of educating their children. If "Catholic education... is an essential part of the life of the Diocese of Austin" then surely this essential part encompasses more than 1% of the people in the diocese. Surely it involves the education, in the faith, of all the children in the diocese. This does not mean that the bishop must be present at a mass blessing homeschoolers. He is a busy man with many duties, and such things are often not possible. But it does mean that it should not be suggested to homeschooling parents that they are acting in opposition to "the heart of the mission of the church."

Secondly, it is concerning to see such a response issued on behalf of the bishop and the diocese to members of the flock. Politeness is something which costs very little. A simple, "Bishop Vásquez appreciates the efforts of Catholic parents who are striving to educate their children in the faith, but the demands of his office make it impossible to officiate at the Blessing Mass this year," would have caused the diocese no inconvenience and earned it continuing goodwill among a dedicated and active group of parents. Instead, the response sent seems calculated to be as dismissive (if not actively adversarial) as possible.

In my experience, such an openly contemptuous communication to the public is almost never made by an administrator unless he believes that he has the full backing of his superiors -- or believes his superiors to be so oblivious to his actions that he has free rein. If Superintendant Vanders' email is an accurate indication of Bishop Vásquez's attitude towards Catholic homeschooling, it seems to suggest a great deal of unnecessary antagonism on the bishop's part. If it is, instead, an indication that the Catholic Schools Office receives little guidance or oversight, that seems a troubling sign for the diocese.

Either way, this is a regrettably provocative opening in the relationship between homeschooling families and the Austin Diocese.

22 comments:

Ioannes said...

Ned Vanders is a petty little man, offended that people are doing what cannot and will not himself do.

bearing said...

Jaw-dropping.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

"As you know, Catholic schools are at the heart of the mission of the church."

"And, as you know, YOU are NOT. Enjoy the next twenty years."

The astounding thing is how sheerly unprovoked this was. The attitude of Austin homeschoolers toward the new bishop was one of enthusiasm and friendliness. Everyone is staggered by this out-of-nowhere slap.

Anonymous said...

Did you stop to consider that the invite never made it past the office staff? Someone needs to bring this letter to the Bishop and discuss it with him before ties are unraveled further by taking this to a public forum rather than right to him.

Big Tex said...

As you know, Catholic schools are at the heart of the mission of the church.

Then I offer a couple pieces of advice regarding the hear of the Church's mission. First, teach the authentic Faith in the classroom. Sadly, it was my wife's experience in a fledgling school that the other teachers on staff declared they would teach what they desired with respect to theology, while at the same time holding opinions/beliefs etc... contrary to Church teaching.

Second, don't price out large families... you know, the one's that are trying to live out the Church's teachings on marriage and family.

Third, be careful in slapping down a source of vibrancy in the parish as well as the diocese at large. It has been said by some at my parish in Everett, WA that the families in our local homeschooling community are the type of families needed in the parish school. I can't say I disagree, but one woman in particular understands the many reasons why we choose homeschooling over the parish school. The first two reasons offered above, while not the sum total of our reasoning, are certainly in play with many of our families. We are fortunate to have a pastor that recognizes our right as parents to provide for our children's education as we see fit (per Church teaching, no less). In fact, he actively seeks that there be no adversarial relationship between the parish school and the homeschoolers.

Well, anyway, I can imagine my mother-in-law's reaction to this letter.

Darwin said...

It's certainly possible that the bishop and even his office did not see or desire the response that eventually went out from the Superintendent. That said, I think it would be pretty concerning if the climate in the diocesan administration is such that it seems like a good idea around the office to send a condescending and dismissive public response sent to a large group of Catholic parents who simply sent an honorary invite to an event.

Politeness is free and rudeness is often very costly when you're acting as the representative of a large public administration. I could certainly see this being the sort of thing that's grumbled around the water cooler, but sending it out as a public response to an organization is seriously troubling.

Calah said...

This is awful. I have real issues with parochial schools anyway, since they are *supposed* to offer an education for free or nearly free to parish families. Isn't that the point of Catholic schooling? Isn't that the vision that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had when she began the Catholic school movement?

In our diocese at least, the parochial schools are comparable to local private schools. If you're a parish member, you get a discount which is basically canceled out by the time you finish paying all these "commitment fees" to the school (a "donation" to the building fund, fees for teachers, fees for toilet paper, etc, etc.). We'll be homeschooling not only because Catholic education is generally abysmal these days, but also because it costs a pretty penny to have you child educated so abysmally.

I really have a problem believing, in light of this, Mr. Vander's claim about education being "at the heart of the mission of the Church."

Jake T said...

I have litte to add that hasn't already been stated. I will, however, echo one of Darwin's points. The problem in our educational environment (private or public) at the moment is the confusion of the terms "education" and "schooling". "Schooling", meaning attendance at an institution that educates, is one form of education, but "education" is a much broader term that includes academics, moral training, habit formation, and the list goes on. Education is central to the mission of Christ ... after all, what is human formation if not education? However, formal "schooling" (meaning here institutional, be it public or private) is not, strictly speaking, necessary.

The same argument is made by those who insist that every child has the "right" to an education. Understanding education properly, this is certainly true. However, confusing it with institutional school ... I'm not so sure.

My two cents ...

Titus said...

diocese of half a million Catholics in 125 parishes, it offers 17 elementary schools and 5 high schools, serving a mere 5,000 students.

That is what's truly astounding: that's mind-bogglingly ineffectual, even apart from whatever criticisms can be levied at the quality of those schools. A long way from the Councils of Baltimore, aren't we?

Theocoid said...

Hi, Darwin.

As much as I commiserate and feel the response was petty and uncharitable, I have to agree with Anonymous that you should take this matter up directly with the bishop. At very least, you'll know where responsibility for this rudeness lies. At best, you may shortcircuit some attempts by bureaucrats to work around the bishop for their own ends.

Jennifer Fitz said...

Darwin,

I agree with you entirely.

Now, making a related (but different) point, not directed towards you: It works the other direction as well.

When homeschoolers take a publicly antagonistic attitude towards the parochial schools, it is just as rude and divisive. It is not surprising that parochial school officials would feel defensive, given that some homeschooling catholics are publishing anti-parochial-school missives as part of their "why homeschool" arguments.

So we as a homeschooling community need to work on that. Meanwhile, though I think the superintendent you quote was sorely mistaken, I understand the gut reaction.

Jen.

Darwin said...

Theocid,

I take your point, and if I had been the person to receive this response, I think the appropriate response would have been for me to revert to the diocesan office and try to get a response more directly from the bishop or his staff along the lines of, "I fully understand you're unable to attend, but I'm really concerned about the way this was stated."

In this case, however, I don't live in the diocese any longer, and the email was not sent directly to me. It was sent to one of the leaders of the homeschooling group, and I only received a copy after it had been widely discussed in various homeschooling lists and forums in the diocese.

The commentary among the homeschoolers in HFHS that I've seen has mostly been along the lines of "we mustn't do anything to antagonize the Bishop or make him feel we're offended."

Being an outsider to the situation, but pretty appalled at the way this representative of the diocese decided to comport himself, I thought I'd take more the "how about bringing a little light to bear on this" approach and report the occurrence and my opinion of it. Perhaps I'm cynical, but my expectation is that publicity mis-steps which generate a certain degree of outcry tend to get mended a lot more than mis-steps in which the people who are told to go shove it sit around worrying about how to keep it from showing that they were offended.

Jennifer,

Definitely. Broadsides from homeschoolers against the parochial school system are definitely unhelpful and serve to create this kind of divide. While I think there's a little less culpability in individual parents going around sounding off than a diocesan administrator doing so, both represent a problem. (One just expects a professional to behave like one.)

1990bluejay said...

Way back when, Bishop Aymond was the pastor of parish in suburban New Orleans with a very, very good school in a well off area as well as some experience with the Archdiocese shcools. He knows about education and that not all can afford a parochial school or given cities with fairly laid back attitudes wishing to avoid the icky stuff of social permissiveness. I get a very detached feeling from Vasquez - none of the priests in the local parishes mention him like they mentioned Aymond - nor is a frequent visitor. Not really sure what he's doing and wouldn't surprise me if the invitation never was seen by him.

JMB said...

It sounds like the director of Catholic schools in Austin is afraid of homeschoolers and is on the defense. And he probably has good reason to be. First there were the public schools that encroached upon the parochial schools, and now the homeschoolers. And (not knowing Austin, but speaking of my neck of the woods, Northern NJ) it's not getting better for Catholic schools, only worse. You need pupils to run a school system. You need paying customers to run a parochial or private school. If there are better educational opportunities out there, parents will find them. And the Catholic stamp doesn't always bring in the students. In NJ, Catholic parochial schools are rapidly consolidating with other parishes and no new Catholic parochial schools have been built in decades. The same sex private high schools are thriving, but most of that is due to sports, not academics or Catholicity of the schools. In inner cities like Paterson, Newark and Jersey City, charter schools are picking off students left and right. Anyway, the guy in Austin sounds scared - he may be out of a job soon.

Kathryn said...

I think most of us would agree that how and where we choose to educate our children is second to this primary priority: educating our children to love and respect both education and the Catholic church. No need to finger point and engage in the argument of "you're a better Catholic if you educate your children by doing X".

What is shameful is how the situation was addressed. Sometimes, after having the face-to-face conversation, nothing gets resolved and a public forum should be engaged. But to circulate that message within the homeschool group and on forums before that conversation takes place only serves one purpose: to stir the pot. Rather than blow it WAY out of proportion, they individual to whom that was addressed should've gone straight to Dr. Vanders office and worked out the differences.

My husband works for the church that people so willingly and quickly throw under the bus.

What happened to civility and working out our differences in a constructive, and a I daresay, positive, way?

Darwin said...

Kathryn,

Certainly, it is not my intention to throw the diocese itself under the bus -- it is, after all, an organization to which I happily contributed time and treasure during the years I lived there.

That said, I am a little perplexed at the idea that when a person in an administrative position of responsibility sends a frankly dismissive response out to another group's courtesy invitation, that it lies to that group to stage multiple follow-ups to see if he really meant what he said or if he was just being rude by accident. Also, it seems a bit odd to insist that members of a group on whose behalf an invitation was sent ought not to be allowed to circulate the response to that invitation.

I work for a fairly large company in a position of rather less importance than I would imagine is held by the office of Superintendent of Catholic Schools in a diocese of half a million Catholics, and yet it is most certainly clear to someone in my position that what I write in a communication, either to the leaders of another department internally or to some outside group in the public, will be taken as expressing my views and those of the company in an on-the-record fashion. As the corporate communication guidelines say, "Don't say or do anything in an official capacity that you wouldn't want to read about next to your name in the paper."

Anonymous said...

You've made some good observations here with which I largely concur. A few points of my own, in no particular order:
-Some who homeschool will continue to do so no matter how orthodox the Catholic schools are.
-The closing of what I understood to be a thriving parochial school a few years ago on the east side of Austin by the diocese seems to send the wrong signal about support for Catholic education.
-The tolerance for banal liturgy in their parishes by some homeschoolers has always amazed me. This goes as well for other otherwise orthodox Catholics.
-Homeschoolers sure do seem to have lot of time to blog, and very intelligently!
(not the other anonymous who has previously commented here)

Gail F said...

What an incredibly rude response to an entire group of people. I hope they take it up with the bishop -- the superintendent needs to apologize ASAP. And if I were the bishop I would immediately appoint someone to do that mass.

I do not homeschool, but people in my family do. My children have been to both public magnet schools and parochial schools (as well as private Montessori schools for preschool). I can say from experience that there is a lot of misunderstanding, resentment, distrust, and downright antagonism on ALL SIDES. That said, all those groups of people are very diverse. There are indeed homeschoolers that would never send their children to a school, ever, no matter what. There are homeschooling parents who give their children indifferent educations but think they are morally and intellectually superior to everyone else. And there are fantastic homeschoolers whose kids are smart, well-rounded, and not elitist. But guess what? The same is true of school teachers and administrators.

Schooling in our country is a huge mess, as anyone should be able to see just by looking at the big picture. Parents and communities are at odds about what schools are for and what they are supposed to teach. If I lived in California, for instance, I would homeschool in a heartbeat. We should all be working on this bigger issue, not fighting with each other like this.

John D. McNichol said...

As a parent whose 7 children have been to homeschool, public school, Catholic school and charter schools, and,

As a teacher who has taught in all the above environments (and currently teaches in a very good ArchD and at a truly wonderful Catholic school- no sarcasm. I'm serious, folks),

I'm truly sorry if the fellow was having a bad day/had a bad childhood/whatever, but he's paid to be the Bishop's voice. And here he botched the job in a big way.

I'd have to say that my instinctive reaction to your lovely ArchD educrat is based upon prejudice rather than facts or experience.

I loved Jennifer's advice, tho: Don't get mad. Get the Bishop. Make an appointment. Eight months from now? For six minutes? Fine. That'll be fine, pal. Just long enough for me to read him the letter you signed his name to.

If nothing else, you'll scare this person into treading a tad more carefully the next time he gets a letter from god people trying to raise good Catholic kids without a $3k/year pricetag.

Anonymous said...

After reading this article yesterday, I contacted Bishop Vasquez's office and am waiting for a response. I am not a member of this homeschooling group, but I do home educate our children in the Austin diocese. I simply asked for clarification on this letter and the Bishop's stance on Catholic home education.

To John D. McNichol--$3k/year would be a good deal around here!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Darwin 100% on this one.

Also, we looked into the parochial school our parish belongs to (all the small parishes around have one regional Catholic school). For our first child, we'd owe $12,000 per year + fees and commuting costs and uniforms. Subsequent children (we have 4 so far) would be about $10,000 EACH + all the peripherals. It's a great school, but only families with fewer children and/or bigger salaries can afford it.

Martha said...

Yes, I would take $3K in a heartbeat! $7K is considered a bargain in Dallas. (that includes all fees.)

That having been said, our parish school is wonderful, orthodox, always trying to become better at nurturing faith, and they have bent over backwards to extend financial aid to parishioners, so we don't pay $7K/student/yr.