Lessons from Cabrini on School Choice Movement

Cristiana Dell’Anna portrays Mother Francesca Cabrini in Cabrini.

The film Cabrini narrates the incredible story of Mother Frances Cabrini’s extraordinary efforts to bring respect and dignity to Italian immigrants in New York City during the late 1880s and early 1890s. During that period, the majority of Italian Americans faced extreme poverty, living in squalid conditions plagued by malnutrition, child labor, prostitution, and illness. A recurring theme in the film is the societal pressure for Mother Cabrini and her Italian-American peers to stay within their designated areas, as the powerful figures in New York City firmly believed they did not belong in more upscale parts of the city.

Warning: Despite immense challenges, Mother Cabrini triumphs in establishing a remarkable orphanage that offers love, education, and hope to the former street children of lower Manhattan. Additionally, she initiates a top-tier hospital to cater to both the city’s affluent residents and the marginalized Italians who were often turned away from other hospitals. These accomplishments were replicated in various U.S. cities and numerous countries worldwide by Mother Cabrini and her order of nuns. On July 7, 1946, Frances Cabrini was declared a saint by Pope Pius XII, marking her as the first American Catholic saint.

While engrossed in this compelling cinematic creation at the theater, the parallels between Mother Cabrini’s quest to expand the notion of where impoverished Italian immigrants belong and the fervor of advocates for parental school choice became apparent to me. The allocation of students to public schools based on their residential areas dictates the schools some children can and cannot attend. Parents who seek to enroll their children in public schools outside their designated zones often face rejection with the sentiment of “You do not belong here,” and in some cases, even legal repercussions like imprisonment. Mother Cabrini would empathize with their struggles and offer guidance to those advocating for expanded school choice.

First, Mother Cabrini would encourage the universal adoption of private school choice. Initially, her vision was to establish a modest hospital in the Five Points Italian neighborhood to provide basic healthcare to the underprivileged. However, she recognized the pitfalls of hospitals for the poor and pivoted to building and staffing a high-quality hospital in New York City that would attract both the wealthy and the less fortunate. Similar to the emerging private school choice programs across the nation, access to this new hospital would be universal, ensuring a shared responsibility among families from all backgrounds to uphold its quality of care for the entire community.

Secondly, Mother Cabrini would caution against overlooking the political dimension of school choice. In the film, a nefarious mayor clandestinely thwarts Mother Cabrini’s hospital project. Ultimately, Mother Cabrini confronts the mayor, emphasizing the importance of his support. She skillfully combines persuasion with a veiled threat of negative publicity during his reelection campaign, reminding him of the influence the Italian-American community wields through voting. Realizing his political survival aligns with endorsing Mother Cabrini’s initiatives, the mayor and Mother Cabrini forge an unassailable political alliance.

Recent events in Texas saw 11 anti-school-choice Republican legislators ousted from office due to retirements or primary losses under pressure. These former policymakers likely regret their stance against the universal Education Savings Account bill or wish they had embodied the wisdom and grace of Saint Frances Cabrini in their decisions.

Patrick J. Wolf is a Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas.  

The post What Cabrini Can Teach Us about the School Choice Movement appeared first on Education Next.

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