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What can Ireland tell us about faith-based organizations in public education?

  • Joanna
  • March 29, 2016

Faith-based organizations will play a key role in the implementation of workforce innovation and opportunity plans being rolled out across the country this season.

There’s good reason for that: Churches of every shape and size have long been a part of the educational and vocational fabric of this nation — and have long played leading roles in helping Americans improve their lives through a variety of initiatives that are based on the age-old and doctrinally widespread adage of loving they neighbor.

It is also reasonable for some to have concerns about religious intrusions into public schools and workforce training programs. Those people might point to the world’s most draconian theocracies to argue against further blurring the line between church and state. But if one is looking at the ways in which church influence, in the extreme, might impact a nation like the United States, the best example isn’t a theocracy at all. Rather, it’s Ireland.

In the Emerald Isle, more than 95 percent of all state-funded primary schools are run by the Catholic Church — and Irish law permits these schools to consider religion as a factor in admissions. In a place in which demand for public schooling exceeds supply, increasing numbers of non-Catholic families are fighting for academic opportunities for their children. For now, there appears to be little reason to fear such a world could materialize in the United States as a result of simply opening more opportunities for a diverse array of faith-based groups to be involved in education and workforce training for those who might otherwise be left behind. (Sure, there are some who might try to use a new federal  focus on finding solutions to dire problems as a way to push a religious agenda, but the same could certainly be said of people with a wide variety of other agendas as well.)

The proposals released so far indicate that states have a good handle on how to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, After all, practitioning partners must demonstrate effective strategies for recruiting and retaining out-of-school youth, the use of best practices for expanding work experiences, and a history of working in tandem with other stakeholders — secular and non-secular alike.

But while there may be little reason to fear the most extreme possible results of a push to be more inclusive of faith-based groups in the all-hands-on-deck effort to provide a diversity of education and workforce training opportunities to more people, it’s never a bad idea to take in a view of what can happen in an extreme version of the future. That view, after all, can help us make better decisions in the present.