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Priests, teachers & culture warriors

AS A TEEN, I spent years in a large, hierarchical institution bound by ancient rituals, which often proclaimed its high ideals. Alas, not all of its adults lived up to those ideals.

AS A TEEN, I spent years in a large, hierarchical institution bound by ancient rituals, which often proclaimed its high ideals. Alas, not all of its adults lived up to those ideals.

There is simply no gentle way to put this. In this particular institution, some adults made sexual advances toward the young people they were responsible for guiding. Many of us kids knew that this sort of behavior went on. Many grown-ups knew it, too, and did nothing to stop it. One teenager reported being groped to higher-ups who warned of dire consequences for her were she to go public.

Besides, the "groper" was a man who took boys on "camping trips." A third perpetrator eventually married one of his charges.

Yet, despite what I saw in my own high school, I support public education. My own kids attend public schools.

IRECALLED my decades-old school days recently on reading a brief news item reporting that over the last five years, more than 175 Florida teachers had their licenses revoked because of sexual behavior toward students that was inappropriate, immoral and just plain creepy.

In one case, a 55-year-old middle-school teacher sent amorous e-mails to a 14-year-old former student, declaring, "You don't have to say you love me; I feel it when we hug."

USA Today relegated the story to the bottom of Page 3, a 28-line summary of a Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel piece. The New York Times, which publishes "All the news that's fit to print," saw no reason to print this story at all.

Yet, on that same day, the Times had two separate pieces about the horrendous child sexual-abuse scandals bedeviling the Catholic Church. Just as the scandal of the American church seemed to run its course, the media discovered new outbreaks in Ireland and Germany. Assuming that no clergy have molested Antarctic penguins, that leaves four more continents to go.

The funny thing is that all the time I attended public school, I also attended Catholic mass and Sunday school, and never heard of any priest preying on kids.

Statistics suggest that my experience is typical. As my very un-Catholic colleague Jay Greene wrote in a wonderful blog, in the average year just under one (0.76) out of 1,000 priests is alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct with minors. A statistically identical 0.77 of every 1,000 male teachers lose their license each year for sexual misconduct.

As Jay points out, "Given that we are comparing license revocations for teachers to allegations for priests, the rate of misconduct among male teachers may be considerably higher than among male priests."

Even worse, some prominent intellectuals in the field of education maintain that it's OK for schools to cover up abuse.

In explaining why traditional public schools handle scandals better than relatively transparent charter schools, Arizona State University Regents Professor Gene Glass, one of the leaders in my field, writes that "poor performance and illegal behavior exist in the traditional public school sector, and they are frequently dealt with. But they are usually dealt with in subtle ways that protect the dignity of the individuals involved while protecting the integrity of the school."

It seems to me that this is just the sort of thinking that got the Catholic Church in trouble, yet reporters are silent. What gives?

In part, the notion of a priest propositioning minors simply ranks higher on the creepiness scale than that of a teacher doing so. And well it should. We expect more from our priests.

But that's not the whole story.

As Penn State professor Philip Jenkins argues in "The New Anti-Catholicism," the secular media and cultural elites hate the Catholic Church's teachings on matters like abortion and marriage, and so are only too happy to take down what they see as a puritanical, regressive institution. Selective reporting is a front in the broader culture war.

To me, the answer is not to begin an attack on public schools any more than it is to continually denigrate the church.

Rather, those on all sides of this particular social conflict should ground their views in data rather than prejudice.

That would represent a real victory for the children.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. With Richard E. Redding and Frederick M. Hess, he co-edited "The Politically Correct University" (AEI, 2009).