Love or hate their politics, the outgoing governor of Oregon, the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the vice president of the United States are products of Catholic education. All three men rose from humble circumstance.
That's one sign that Catholic schools contribute to civic life outside the church.
There is other, less controversial, evidence. First, Catholic schools save Oregon a lot of money, about $80 million annually.
The savings come because every student not attending a public school equals $5,700 the state does not need to send to a school district. About 14,500 students are enrolled in Catholic schools statewide.
"This is our contribution to Oregon's economy," says Bob Mizia, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese. "That, plus the good citizens created."
Families who send their children to Catholic schools still pay their taxes to support public education, in addition to paying tuition and helping create hundreds of jobs.
Catholic schools spend less per student and usually get better results. A look at SAT scores in Salem, for example, shows that students at Blanchet Catholic School score 200 points higher on average than their public school counterparts, even though demographics are about the same.
"It could be any number of things — discipline or family support or the ability to focus resources," says Kevin Mannix, a former state legislator and chairman of the board for Blanchet. "Catholic schools reflect a dynamic community that supports education. The graduates are imbued with solid moral values and can provide leadership to the community."
Catholic schools contribute to the wider good by giving public schools an example of steadfastness in educational thought, says Tom Green, a former public school administrator and now dean of graduate studies at the University of Portland.
"Catholic schools provide some good lessons about constancy of purpose; they're less swayed by political rhetoric and the latest fads," explains Green, who was assistant superintendent in the Beaverton and Gresham-Barlow school districts. "At Catholic schools, there really is a strong hand on that rudder."
Green has experienced the partnerships that spring up between leaders of Catholic and public schools. Everyone benefits, he says.
"Catholic and other private schools, both parochial and non-parochial, offer a welcomed set of diverse educational opportunities to the students and parents of Oregon," says Susanne Smith, communications chief for the Oregon Department of Education. "Education is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise and privates give students options."
The Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute in 2008 found that 44 percent of Oregon families would send their children to private school if they could.
A 2008 U.S. Department of Education report called church-based urban schools a "critical national asset." Inner-city Catholic schools have long been seen as a way out of poverty.
"For many urban parents, the moral grounding, community ethic, safe and structured environment, and academic rigor of faith-based schools are invaluable to their children," the report said. “Experience indicates that the contributions of these schools extend far beyond the classroom. A strong education institution can stabilize a community. It can attract new families and jobs. It can provide safety and hope in areas where both are in short supply.”
The federal report expressed alarm at the rapid rate at which such schools have been forced to close in the past few decades and called for public and private support. "Catholic schools particularly give students a lot of one-on-one attention," says Kathryn Hickok, who directs a fund that helps low-income students in Oregon attend private schools. The Children's Scholarship Fund has aided 600 students in Oregon so far, many of them choosing Catholic education, even though the families are not Catholic.
"We hear from parents that students at Catholic schools feel shepherded through by caring teachers and principals," says Hickock, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego.
The efficient success of Catholic schools provides some healthy competition for public schools, Hickock explains. Families in the program tend to choose Catholic schools because of the high graduation rates and high test scores.
Meanwhile, one non-Catholic scholarship student who is attending a Catholic high school said spiritual retreats had become her favorite part of the experience.
"You never know how kids will be touched by Catholic education," Hickock says. "Catholic schools are good at teaching children values and responsibility. That's really a hallmark of private schools, especially Catholic and other faith-based schools — personal formation, how you live your values."
Officials at Catholic schools in Oregon often point to their community service as contributions to the wider good. Students at Catholic high schools, for example, are required to serve people who are needy or marginalized. Food drives and outreach to people with disabilities are common projects.