R&L: What prompted your involvement in educational reform, especially the school-choice movement?
Smith: I really became involved in educational reform issues after working as a parole officer and, eventually, as a juvenile detention home chaplain in Detroit in the early 1980s. I found that many of the people who were incarcerated were not only poor and minorities but also, more startling for me, school dropouts. Working with these adults, I saw that over 80 percent had dropped out of high school and were barely literate. In 1985 I was stationed in Milwaukee to complete a graduate degree in educational administration. After learning the dismal statistics about what was happening in our public school system and seeing little response from educational leadership, I decided that I would do whatever I could to help bring relief to parents and kids.
R&L: How did you end up providing that relief?
Smith: I felt that by becoming an administrator, I was becoming part of the solution. Though I worked at a Roman Catholic school, over 60 percent of our students were not Catholic and were transfer students from public, nonsectarian schools. My goal was to prove that success for urban students was not a “Catholic thing” but an “attitude and expectation thing.” We worked with the same students as the public system did, but with drastically different results. Our graduation rate was high, most of our seniors went on to college, and our daily attendance rate was 97 percent. We showed that the same kids who were wallowing in hopelessness in public high schools were able to succeed here. The fact that the school was located in the central city was a clear sign of hope—that we could see success in the same neighborhoods that the kids lived in.
School choice opened doors for thousands of children in Milwaukee to attend private and religious schools that they and their parents would choose. In short, we were able to provide a lifeline for many who felt that there was no hope and no future.
R&L: What is the theological grounding for your position on school choice?
Smith: I am a firm believer that the school-choice issue is a justice issue. Throughout the Scriptures, Jesus not only asks but also demands that we take care of the poor. This means we are not only obligated to help in the area of food and shelter but are also compelled to give tools to the poor that will help them live as equals in our society.
I find it somewhat perplexing when people say that the church should not be involved in this issue. My response is, If we do not get involved in this issue—one that directly touches the lives of our future—then which issue should we be choosing?
R&L: Can you offer any examples from your experience at Messmer High that illustrate how school choice advances social justice?
Smith: Part of social justice means becoming a voice for the voiceless. Over the years, we have had many students who wanted to attend colleges—some very selective institutions—but had no alumni friend or parent to open doors for their application. One thing we have been able to do is enlist business leaders and alumni from Messmer to make calls, write letters, and help students get a fair hearing when applying for these schools.
I think another way that school choice has advocated social justice is that many people, including myself, have spoken across the country about the dismal results of the public schools and how the poor and minorities are given dysfunctional academic skills for their future. These challenges are forcing the public to take a closer look at what is happening to the poor and, in many cases, have forced changes in the systems. These changes have made public schools more accountable to the poor, prompting them to make changes in order to provide higher-quality service to people who were previously ignored.
R&L: What is at stake, both ethically and theologically, in the school-choice debate?
Smith: The souls and lives of poor and minority people are at stake. We cannot ignore the fact that, in many cities, over 50 percent of the children in public schools drop out, but more alarming is the fact that the education many receive is far from adequate. These children will become the adults running our cities and states. Those who wake up and realize that they have been given dysfunctional skills will end up in the criminal justice system, the welfare system, or some other social service department.
R&L: In your advocacy of school choice, what have you seen as the ash points of the debate?
Smith: In debating opponents around the country I am appalled that the main things talked about are job security, separation of church and state, and some concocted conspiracy to privatize public education. Almost never do the opponents talk about the hundreds of thousands of children doomed to a life of mediocrity and failure. No ideas are offered, other than “give us more money, and leave us alone.”
R&L: That attitude seems to indicate that the public school establishment is unconcerned about parents' God-given right to and responsibility for the intellectual, moral, and spiritual education of their children. Do you see it that way?
Smith: Yes. It is clear to me that the public school establishment too often forgets who employs them and what their main purpose is for existence. They forget that the students do not exist for the schools and their comfort but that the schools exist for the children. They forget that even though students live in a poor area or their parents do not pay tuition, the students should not be treated any differently from those who attend private schools. Mostly, they forget that all children are God's children and that we should have the same high expectations for all kids and give them the same opportunities. I believe that it is a mistake for public schools and public school personnel to ignore the importance of a spiritual component to education. This wall of separation that has been constructed is not only poorly intentioned but also, in my opinion, wrong.
R&L: Many opponents of school-choice programs argue that enacting such proposals would dissolve the separation of church and state. How do you respond to such criticisms?
Smith: I do not believe that school choice will affect the separation of church and state. We have myriad examples from around the country that demonstrate how the two can work together without compromising independent principles. The facts that our currency says, “In God We Trust,” that the Congress has a chaplain, and that many state legislatures around the country begin sessions with prayer have not eroded this historical wall. In fact, my greater concern is that we have treated the church as if it is alien to the Framers of our Constitution. Anyone who carefully studies what happened during the drafting of the Constitution realizes that most of the Founding Fathers were believers and men of prayer.
R&L: Based on your experience with Messmer High School, how would you respond to the common perception that non-public schools discriminate against minorities and the poor?
Smith: People who have said that non-public schools discriminate against minorities and the poor are either misinformed or lying. The Catholic Church was one of the first groups that intentionally moved into inner cities to offer religious services and education to minorities and the poor. Even today, in cities across the country, the church still clearly maintains a signicant presence.
What opponents of non-public schools forget is that the church has saved the country billions of dollars by educating students for far less than public schools and by subsidizing tuition for families who could not otherwise afford it. Expecting families to participate in school fund raising and volunteer work, then, was not a punishment but a way to break the bond of dependence that the public system places on people—a dependence that says, “You cannot make intelligent decisions without us, so we will take care of that for you.”
R&L: The Catholic Church runs the largest system of private schools in the country; consequently, what has been the reaction of Catholics to the choice program in Milwaukee? What sorts of debates has it prompted within Catholic circles?
Smith: Catholics in Milwaukee have been overwhelmingly supportive of school choice. Most Catholics who have attended Catholic schools know that, even if they paid full tuition, the schools and their benefactors helped subsidize their education. Also, our tradition compels us to reach out to the poor and to be a voice for the voiceless. What has helped the conversation in Milwaukee is the fact that Messmer and other Catholic schools have made it crystal clear that our Catholicity is nonnegotiable and that we will not tolerate interference for any amount of state money. We are who we are!
R&L: On the basis of your experience in Milwaukee, what advice would you give to Christians in other regions who are now advocating greater educational choice?
Smith: I believe that Christians everywhere have an obligation to advocate for more and varied educational options for the poor. The fact that things are well in our particular area does not exempt us from looking out for our other brothers and sisters. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This warning really puts it all together for me.
R&L: Some argue that religious education ill-prepares students for life in a society of diverse values. What is your reply to such a position?
Smith: I respectfully disagree. In many Catholic schools and other schools run by particular faiths, many of the students are from different traditions. That fact alone demonstrates a signicant commitment to diversity. But, on a practical level, we also teach students to value people from different faiths, cultures, and economic backgrounds. It is the people who like to neuter everyone and pretend that “all is equal” who do damage and should be treated with suspicion.
R&L: What do you see as the greatest educational challenges facing Christians today? How do you envision religious schools addressing these challenges?
Smith: I believe that the greatest educational challenge facing Christians today is standing up for Christ and modeling him every day in all that we do. Our secular society has pushed people of faith into a defensive mode, which keeps us ghting for our right to exist. In some places, the press is hostile to religion, and people are, at best, lukewarm to remembering that there is a higher power than themselves. For this reason, it is imperative that the church continues to speak out loudly. We must teach the young that there is a way besides violence, and that way is Christ. There is an obligation for believers to remind leaders in government that they, too, must answer to a higher call and that, no matter how much power they have, it has been given to them from someone greater than all of us. Religious schools have such a great opportunity to lead the country and the world in this important time. Schools and school personnel must accept this challenge and use their classrooms, athletic elds, and chapels to share the Gospel with all who have ears to hear.