Choice: Homily for Saturday, August 19, 2017

To listen to the entire homily, click here.

Readings for Today

There comes a time in our lives, perhaps many times, where we must choose God or reject God.  It is the case that God profoundly respects our freedom.  And so God does not force us to follow him.  Rather, God seeks to give us the grace and persuasion to choose to follow him.  Today Joshua puts this choice before the people.

This is the choice: follow God or reject God.  Serve God or serve ourselves. Be open to grace or harden your heart. What will you do? What will you choose? Today, choose God, serve God, love God.  You will not be sorry.


How an unqualified Betsy DeVos might actually set school choice back

In general, I believe a president should be able to surround himself with people that support the agenda he was elected on by the citizens who voted.  It seems to me the appropriate place for disagreement and discussion about policy best occur when it is done by elected officials, where every 2, 4, 6 or 8 years voters have the opportunity to weigh in on their evaluation of their elected officials’ performance.

But on the confirmation, yesterday of Betsy DeVos, as Secretary of Education, 2, 4, 6 or 8 years of her being in this job are 2, 4, 6 or 8 years too many.  It is not because I disagree with some of the policies that she might support.  In general, I do wish there were mechanisms to allow students in failing schools to leave the school and choose to go somewhere else. I do wish that those for whom paying private school tuition is a significant economic burden could get some tax relief.  My problems are not about policy.

My problems are about an absolutely unqualified person to be the Secretary of Education.  Ms. Devos did not know even rudimentary educational terms, concepts or laws.  If you are going to advise states and help them, you need to understand whether or not the type of measurement you are going to use is standards (proficiency) or by the level of improvement by each individual student (growth).

If you are going to advise and assist states, you need a fundamental grasp of the current educational law.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is not a new idea.  It has been the law, under a couple of names since 1975.  The basic reason for the law is the belief that all children, regardless of ability, deserve a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).  Not only is this law not new, it has been tried and upheld in the courts as the right thing to do under the constitution.

These two concepts are basic undergrad concepts.  It is unbelievable that Devos was unprepared for even these basic, rudimentary questions.  How will she protect constitutional rights of students if she does not understand the basic laws in place to do so?  How can she help local states and school districts get better if she does not even know how to define what better means in education?

And when she was able to influence educational policy, what were the results?  Consider what the Michigan Board of Education president said to Education Week about her.  “Under the guise of expanded choice, the DeVos’ have been the agents of a purposeful effort to dismantle the traditional public schools and teachers unions even if the choices that are created don’t educate kids,” he said. “I’m pro-choice and pro-charter if it’s quality and about educating kids. They’re for choice for choice sake, as a vehicle to try and destroy the existing public school infrastructure.”

Even Republicans who supported her had to get promises from her that she would not push strongly for a federal voucher program.  And when the Michigan experience is considered, the results are poor at best.  There is little accountability for the $1 billion spent on charter schools in Michigan.  Moreover, there is not any state that has as many for-profit charter schools as Michigan.  Consider this for a moment.  A for-profit charter school.  Our students, children who have no choice about whether or not to go to school, are customers, sources of profit for a company.  And, consider further that graduation rates have been quite poor, especially in Detroit schools where many of these charter schools are.

Even the data collection agencies that DeVos’ supporters cite show that charter schools in Michigan have not lifted more students to high achievement.  In fact, for the twenty years of charter schools in Michigan, almost two of every three charter schools are well below state standards.  In fact, they are not performing any differently than the public schools they criticize.  And when considering some of the most challenging students to teach, charter schools do not do any better in Michigan.  The difference? Less accountability and more profit for the charter school operators.

To be sure, there are some high-performing charter schools.  But, there are some high performing public schools too.  In many ways, the poor education is received in areas of high poverty, where there is little real school choice, unlike the wealthy who have for some time been able to choose where their children go to school.  And what is the value of deconstructing the public accountability that schools should have if it is not available to the students who need it most?

And when standardized tests are considered in high schools, 14 of the 16 charter high schools did worse than the Detroit Public School high school.  While neither ACT average was great, the claim that students would do better if their parents had a choice, that the existence of such a choice would cause schools to improve, has not been the case.

If schools were run like businesses, there would be an important emphasis on data.  But it is the reliance on data, this lack of accountability that is precisely the problem in the programs that DeVos’ has pushed.  Rather than look at high-performing charter schools, looking at hard data, DeVos advocated creating even more for-profit charter schools with no oversight or accountability, just profits for those who ran them.

And this lack of oversight championed by DeVos will not help the school choice movement, it will hurt it.  If there is no proof that charter schools perform better than public schools, and that they might even do worse, who would reasonably support school choice?

And this is sad.  There are good reasons to support school choice.  But there must also be accountability that the money is given to educate students is, in fact, helping students to grow.  If charter schools provide the chance to improve students’ learning, lessons gained from them might be applied to other schools, even traditional public schools.

For that is the great promise of charter schools: the chance to try new ways to educate students, and then to measure the outcomes to see if students are better off or not.  School choice has every promise of making parents become more involved in school, as the next school is not a default choice, but is one where ownership is developed because of parents’ choosing what is best for their children.

And so while Trump supporters hail the unqualified choice of DeVos, with the illusion that school choice and vouchers and other initiatives will sweep the nation, there is the very real fear that an extremely unqualified Secretary of Education will make things worse in these very areas.

Christianity Ain’t for Wimps: The Choice is not always easy

I recently saw a cartoon on the internet that placed a challenge right at the heart of my understanding of my faith. Usually I expect to see funny cartoons, plays on words, or jokes. But this one actually present a challenge to me. It was simply a quote: “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”

It got me to thinking: when was the last time I was challenged by God. To be sure, I can see and admit my sinfulness. But, have I really had a sense that God was calling me to something difficult, something that I did not want to do? Moses and Jesus set the choice before us: life or death, the cross or the comfort.

Homily for Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Readings for Today

I am always a little tempted when the genealogy reading comes up in the gospel to read. If for no other reason, it is to see if I can read it with the type of conviction that might cause people to pay attention. Usually I do not. And yet, when we think about celebrating a birthday, it might be the best time for us to think about the connections we have to the past, and will have in the future.  For better or worse, our family and our relatives are connected.

What is interesting to me is that we do not choose these connections. We did not have auditions to see what relatives would “make the cut.” They were given to us, whether we wanted them to be or not. We did not have a choice in the matter. We do however have a choice in how we will allow them to influence us.

Most people can look to their relatives and see how, in positive ways, they have shaped the persons we are and whom it is we will become. When I think of my relatives, they are probably not a lot different from yours. There are some relatives of mine I admire deeply and seek to emulate in my faith and in the way I live my life. There are others for whom faith is not as important. At the same time, they still impact the person I am, either because I have been shaped by past experiences or people I care about have been shaped by past experiences.

The Blessed Mother is no different. Just as we are, she too was shaped and molded by her relatives. Like most family trees hers too is filled with a variety of people, with a variety of serious expressions of faith. We know she was open to being shaped by Jesus too, perhaps most especially when we see of her struggle, and that of her relatives, in trying to figure out this son of hers.

Perhaps what is most important when we consider the first reading. Saint Paul reminds us that all that God does God does for a purpose. It is not purely a chance event that allows some to be saved, while others who may not have had that chance event are out of luck. No, if there is any important lesson on a day when we recall the Blessed Mother, it is precisely that God is ever-present seeking to invite us again and again to a deeper life with him.

In many ways, it is not just that we did not choose our family. Most of us did not choose our family of faith either. Whether we are a life long Catholic, or someone new, those witnesses that led us to faith came to us by grace. But the choice is not luck, but is for the purpose God sets before us.


Homily for Thursday March 6, 2014

Readings for Today

When we think of freedom, we often think that being free means to do whatever we want, when we want.   We can easily see that to be free is to have no limits to our activity.  And on one level, such a world might seem quite attractive.  But those who have made significant choices in their lives, like to get married, to have children, or even to have a pet, come soon to realize that while they were free in making these choices, they were not free in being able to do whatever they want.  They chose to be responsible in their choice to a new way of living.  Doing whatever we want might seem like freedom, but in fact, it is license.  And if we do not control our license, then usually it controls us.

We might like to eat all the candy we could possibly eat, we might like to be totally free in every relationship, or even being totally free in the way we treat others.  But if we were totally free, without limits, we would soon discover that this choices of license, choosing to eat candy or vegetables, would create in us a world were we would find these unfettered choices leave us less free.

The type of freedom that we seek, to be truly our authentic selves, means often that we need to set limits for ourselves, and choose to do things we might not want to do.  What parent really wants to get up at 2am to care for a sick child?  What person on a diet does not know they need to limit what they want to eat?  In this second type of freedom, it is not emphasizing what we want to do, but rather, whom do we wish to become?

It is this second type of freedom, where the focus is on becoming, not doing, that is emphasized in today’s first reading.  “Today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom.”  I think these words are a good way to begin Lent.  Do we choose life or death?

The purpose of self-denial is really to help us to discover what is really important in our lives.  We might give up something we really like for Lent, in order to focus on something more important.  We might choose to give up Facebook for Lent, in order to focus more upon prayer.  We might choose to give up sweets, to help us focus more on the significant suffering others might have in their lives. We might seek to be more charitable to those in need, to be kind to the co-worker who drives us up the wall, or to find some time for silent reflection to examine our relationship with God.

Moses challenges us to choose life, that fulfilling life that is eternal.  Too often though, the temptation is not to focus on our relationship with Jesus, but rather to check off a set of rules.  This matters because when we focus only on the Ten Commandments, for example, we could become proud.  We might be able to say that we have not stolen, lied, committed adultery, murdered or blasphemed.  But have we really entered into that type of conversion which moves our friendship with Jesus deeper and deeper?

Choosing life means focusing upon making the most of the precious gift we have been given of ourselves.  God has made us in his image.  We are called to something more wonderful that we can possibly imagine.  And so we are asked, “Do you choose life or death, the blessing or the curse.”   Choose life.