What Cabrini Can Teach Us about the School Choice Movement

“You belong here” is a message that resonates with all who seek freedom
 Cristiana Dell’Anna portrays Mother Francesca Cabrini in Cabrini.
Cristiana Dell’Anna portrays Mother Francesca Cabrini in Cabrini.

The movie Cabrini tells the inspiring tale of Mother Frances Cabrini’s heroic work to provide dignity to Italian immigrants in New York City in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Most Italian Americans lived in desperate poverty at that time and were confined to slums where disorder reigned supreme in the forms of malnutrition, child labor, prostitution, and disease. A constant theme in the movie is that Mother Cabrini and her Italian-American compatriots should “stay where they belong.” Where they don’t belong, the powerbrokers of New York declared, is in the nice parts of the city.

Spoiler Alert: Mother Cabrini succeeds against astronomical odds to establish a wonderful orphanage to provide love, care, education, and a future for the erstwhile street urchins of lower Manhattan. She also manages to launch a new, world-class hospital to serve the city’s elites as well as the poor Italians so frequently turned away from the city’s other hospitals because “they don’t belong there.” Mother Cabrini and her order of nuns succeed in replicating their amazing feats in other U.S. cities and in dozens of countries around the world. On July 7, 1946, Frances Cabrini was canonized by Pope Pius XII as the first American Catholic saint.

As I watched this moving cinematic masterpiece in the theater, I couldn’t help but see parallels between Mother Cabrini’s crusade to expand the scope of where poor Italian immigrants “belong” and the missional zeal of those who support parental school choice. The residential assignment of students to public schools determines the schools that certain children must and must not attend. Parents who try to enroll their child in a public school outside of their zoned area not only are told “You don’t belong here,” some are sent to prison merely for attempting to create a brighter future for their children. Mother Cabrini would sympathize with their plight. She also would offer advice to those who seek to expand school choice.

First, Mother Cabrini would entreat us to make private school choice universal. Her first idea was to build a small hospital in the Italian slum of Five Points to provide at least rudimentary, free health care to the poor. Mother Cabrini quickly realized that hospitals for the poor inevitably become poor hospitals. Her refined mission, ultimately realized, was to build and staff a new hospital in New York City of such high quality that rich people would seek its care even as it served poor people. Access to the new hospital would be universal, like the new wave of private school choice programs sweeping the country. That way, families from all strata of society would have a stake in maintaining the high quality of medical care being provided to the entire community.

Second, Mother Cabrini would warn us not to ignore the politics of school choice. In the movie, a malevolent mayor works in secret to thwart Mother Cabrini’s efforts to establish the new hospital. In the climax to the story, Mother Cabrini insists on seeing the mayor in private and confronts him about his misdeeds. This holy woman does not rely primarily on admonishment to persuade the mayor to repent and change his errant ways. She is too worldly wise to expect mere shaming to work on him. Instead, she threatens the mayor with bad press during his upcoming reelection campaign and reminds him that “The Italians are now Americans, able to vote.” Recognizing that his path to maintaining power now lies with supporting Mother Cabrini’s efforts, not undermining them, the mayor and Mother Cabrini toast their new unstoppable political union.

Recently, 11 anti-school-choice Republican legislators in Texas were turned out of office via pressured retirements or primary defeats. Those now former policymakers likely wish they had seen Cabrini before they voted against the universal Education Savings Account bill in Texas or, better yet, wish that they had possessed the wisdom and grace of Saint Frances Cabrini in the first place.

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

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