I think most Catholic homeschoolers have had an experience like this: you're talking amiably to another Catholic mom with preschool-age children (we'll call her Mrs. Blythe) who seems interested in homeschooling. She asks lots of pointed questions about your life, your day, your schedule, your educational goals and objectives, and she brings up some of the usual questions regarding socialization and the like. You're answering confidently, and the conversation seems to be going well, and then she sighs.
"I just don't think I could ever do it," she says, as her children pull first on her arms and then on her legs. "I agree with you about the public schools, of course, and I don't think I could ever send Theodosius and Philomena there, but there's an awfully nice school attached to our parish, St. Zoticus, and we're really strongly considering sending the children there." She pauses long enough to remove Philomena's fingers from Theodosius's hair, and asks, "By the way, I was wondering--why don't you send your children to a Catholic school?"
You take a deep breath. Here it is, the question many Catholic homeschooling moms dread.
"Well, to begin with," you say, glancing at the four of your children who are within eyesight and hoping fervently that your husband is still watching the older four, "it's really very expensive..."
An understanding light comes into Mrs. Blythe's kind but expensively made-up face. "So it's mainly financial, then?" she asks.
Moment of truth, you think. "Well, no, not entirely," you reply, reaching for the baby and balancing him on one hip while you change the two-year-old's diaper and warn the three-and-a-half year old with one meaningful glance that she'd better quit teasing her twin sister and start playing nicely with Philomena. "I mean, yes, it's true that with the current tuition rates we could never afford the diocesan schools, in spite of the discounts they give you after the fifth child. But even if we could somehow manage the tuition, I've got to be honest with you. I'm not all that keen on the idea of sending my children to a Catholic school."
"But why not?" asks Mrs. Blythe, scrubbing Theodosius's sticky fingers with a wet napkin. "Father Trustworthy just gave the most marvelous homily about how important the Catholic schools are, and how as a parish we should support them. Why wouldn't you want your kids to go there--aside from the money issue, that is?"
"We had a similar homily from Father Godsend last week," you admit, shaking sand out of the two-year-old's shoe and shifting the baby to the other hip. "But as much as I admire him for admitting that catechesis wasn't any too good at the Catholic school for a while, and as much as I respect him for promising to do better, the truth is that Catholic schools just aren't what they used to be, and I don't see them making drastic improvements any time soon."
"You mean, because the nuns aren't there any more?"
"That's part of it. Most Catholic school teachers are lay teachers, and other than the religion teachers they're not always Catholic."
"But does that matter?" Mrs. Blythe asks as she begins wiping Philomena's hands.
"It depends on the subject," you answer, deciding to put the baby down before he launches himself out of your arms. "A non-Catholic teacher won't be different from a Catholic one in a subject like math, for instance, but a non-Catholic history teacher is going to have very different ideas and perspectives than a Catholic one."
"But if the textbooks are all Catholic..."
"They're not," you say, a little sadly. "All the subjects other than religion are taught using the same textbooks and course materials that the public school down the road uses."
"Isn't that so the kids will pass the state's standardized tests, though?" asks Mrs. Blythe, bending down to tie Theodosius's shoes.
"Partly," you say, picking up the baby again before the twins step on his fingers. "It's also because the schools accept government money and seek government accreditation. So St. Zoticus can't use a Catholic history or literature program; they can't teach science from the perspective that the universe might have a creator (though if the teacher is Catholic he or she might try). The biggest difference between the education at St. Zot's and the public school is that St. Zot's teaches religion, and the kids attend Mass on a weekly basis. Other than that, the differences are just like they'd be between any private school, religious or not, and the public schools: smaller class sizes, more personal attention, a better atmosphere for serious study." You sit down cross-legged on the grass and set the baby down beside you as you continue, "I can provide those things at home, you see. Small class size? Check. Individual attention? Check. A good atmosphere for learning? Check..."
"Definitely check," laughs Mrs. Blythe as she sits down beside you. "Your six-year-old certainly knows all there is to know about clouds, for instance--more than I do!"
"Well, some of that is just him," you admit with a smile. "But you see, in addition to that, I get to provide a truly Catholic education. Our science books talk openly about the miracle of God's creation--no creeping atheistic materialism there. Our history program has taught me more than I ever knew before about the religious motives for the founding of this country, and the role of Catholics as far back as the colonial days. I can choose books for the children to read that will reinforce our Catholic values in every subject. Religion isn't confined to one class period a day in our homeschool."
"It shouldn't be confined to one class in the Catholic school, either," says Mrs. Blythe thoughtfully. She is silent for a moment. Then she springs to her feet. "Philomena Therese! Get out of that mud this instant!!"
You smile, watching her chase after Philomena. It seems so very long ago that your first two were that little, and life was that easy.