Fredrik deBoer makes a common—and for Catholic educators, uncomfortable—argument about Catholic schools in The Cult of SmartHow Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice (2020). He says “Tell me how your students are assigned to your school, and I can predict your outcomes” (99). He suggests that these outcomes (better test scores, fewer disciplinary problems, perhaps even athletic success) are due to who chooses to enroll.

This doesn’t just happen in Catholic schools. In A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools (2020), Tim DeRoche painstakingly establishes how public school parents select their homes by attendance area, thereby perpetuating educational inequalities. He argues for an abolishment of attendance areas (which are often no more than administrative policies, not laws, unlike district boundaries).

It’s worth considering how an abolishment of district attendance zones would impact our urban schools and shake up the educational environment. It’s also worth considering the implications to American education that we (educators and parents) are so aware of the importance of who enrolls in a school but are unable to accomplish anything to mitigate the inequities. And I’m not just talking about public vs. public or public vs. Catholic. Catholic school principal Dr. Lauren Roberts of Dallas researched the funding discrepancies between Catholic schools in one metro area for her dissertation. Are our educational systems addressing these inequities?

The Century Foundation studied 12 districts who prioritized socioeconomic integration (rather than simply race or housing locations). The results were positive for the common good.

It’s also worth considering the nightmare scenario found in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005) which traces how Atlanta became desegregated but white flight has made the school system of the metro area even more segregated today. Catholic schools make an appearance in this book, too, described as an alternative to segregated public schools since they remained segregated after the public schools. The opponents used terms like “freedom to associate with whom we want to” and portrayed themselves as victims of these diversity efforts. These themes have been carried forward and are present today.

What does this mean for Catholic schools? For many people, Catholic schools represent an alternative at least and an escape in the worst scenario. If a Catholic school doesn’t articulate a value other than “we’re not the local public school,” then that school deserves the criticism for contributing to an unequal and unjust system. But if a Catholic school can represent a unique value distinguishing itself from other schools, then that criticism is undeserved.