Private Schools

February 17, 1999 2 min read

Catholic History: When the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 1925 that families could not be prohibited from sending their children to private schools, it described an important balance between the rights of parents and the responsibilities of states.

But the story of that ruling is lost today to most of the very students whose schools secured their constitutional legitimacy with the historic case known as Pierce v. Society of Sisters, some Roman Catholic scholars say. That chapter in the experience of American Catholics--and others who operate nonpublic schools--is missing, they say, from most parochial school history courses.

Now, archivists at the Catholic University of America in Washington have unearthed original documents related to the case to help Catholic schools retell the tale. The ad hoc group is piloting a curriculum unit on the lawsuit at a handful of schools this winter. It also hopes to complete two more units on other important episodes of American Catholic history next year. Ultimately, the archivists plan to make the materials available to any school.

The archivists began examining the Pierce decision after winning a $25,000 grant from Our Sunday Visitor, a Huntington, Ind. firm specializing in Catholic publications. The case dealt with an Oregon law, passed in a 1922 voter referendum that was largely prompted by anti-Catholic bigotry, that would have forced all children to attend public schools.

“It raises all sorts of issues about freedom of religion,” said Timothy J. Meagher, who oversees Catholic University’s archives. “It also raises questions about what should be the extent of a common culture in America.”

The instructional packet prepared by Catholic University graduate student Maria Mazzenga includes a summary of the case, a time line, and biographies of key actors. It also has the law’s original language and Ku Klux Klan meeting minutes in which members pledged support for the law.

The idea, Mr. Meagher said, is “to not just give students the answers, but to have them work with real stuff, analyze it, and prove things themselves.”

That’s an approach favored by Richard Burns, who teaches Advanced Placement history at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Wheaton, Md. He plans to work the material into a unit on the Pierce decision. “If we looked at virtually any standard American history textbook and checked under the index under African-Americans, for instance, there are going to be a couple pages of references,” Mr. Burns said. “If you check under Catholic or Catholic American, you may get a couple references.”

--Jeff Archer

A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 1999 edition of Education Week