The Common Core State Standards initiative has sparked a fierce debate in the United States that has dominated the public education reform discussion for years. What has been less visible is an argument among Catholics  over whether the standards are appropriate for Catholic schools. Some say they are just fine, while others insist that they are inappropriate — and possibly dangerous — to Catholic education.

Catholic schools represent the largest grouping of private schools in the country, with about 40 percent of those students in non-public schools choosing them to attend. In 2012-2013, the last year for which there are statistics, about 6,680 Catholic schools — most of them elementary — enrolled more than 2 million students, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. In recent years, many Catholic dioceses have adopted the Core standards in math and English Language Arts.

The Common Core State Standards were adopted in full by 45 states and the District of Columbia several years ago, but support began to wane when critics from across the political spectrum expressed concerns about the authorship and content of some of the standards and Core-aligned tests, and the federal government’s involvement in the Core. The Obama administration did not mandate that states use the Core, but it used what some consider to be coercive tactics to persuade states to adopt the standards, and it provided $360 million for the development of Core-aligned standardized tests. The Core standards are still being implemented in most states, although sometimes under different names.

As Pope Francis arrives in the United States for his first visit, he will find Catholics in a fight about whether the Core belongs in Catholic schools that is, in some ways, similar to the one in public schools. Supporters of the Core in Catholic education say that many Catholic elementary school students wind up going to public high school and that it is important for them to be exposed to the standards they will meet later in their education. They also say the standards are strong and will help schools prepare students for college and careers. And they say there is nothing in the standards that contradicts Catholic values.

But critics of the Core in Catholic education say otherwise. Some say the standards are not rigorous enough. Others say the Core was mandated by the federal government. And still others say that Catholic schools that use the Core standards are at risk of losing their Catholic identity.

The National Catholic Educational Association, a nonprofit private professional association based in Washington, takes the position that there is nothing incompatible in the Core with Catholic education. The association released a statement in 2013 about the Core that said in part:

Catholic schools have a long-standing commitment to academic excellence that is rooted in the faith-based mission of Catholic education. The Common Core State Standards in no way compromise the Catholic identity or educational program of a Catholic school.

The association, along with some partners in Catholic education, established something called the “Common Core Catholic Identity Initiative” to provide resources for Catholic schools to use the Core standards. Among those involved in the initiative are superintendents of a number of Catholic dioceses as well as Catholic universities. The initiative’s Web site says:

Catholic schools and dioceses have chosen to adapt standards from the CCSS or other sources because they want to insure that the academic goals they set for their students are rigorous.  They want to provide students with a curriculum that is rich in the classics and in the study of math and the sciences while providing curriculum that is fully integrated with our Catholic faith.  Catholic educators will  never forget that our schools exist to bring our students to Christ. By adapting standards from the CCSS that are challenging, they are working to fulfill the promise of quality Catholic education that educates the whole child, mind and soul. The Catholic Identity Curriculum Integration initiative supports Catholic school educators in these efforts.

The association’s work in promoting the Core was assisted in 2013 by a $100,007 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “support training and provision of follow-up materials for teachers on implementing the Common Core State Standards.” The Gates Foundation funded the writing of the Core and has provided millions of dollars to support the implementation.

A different view has come from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has urged Catholic schools to be cautious about using the Common Core. The bishops said in a 2014 statement:

CCSS should be neither adopted nor rejected without review, study, consultation, discussion and caution. Catholic schools must take into consideration the horizon of the local, state and national education landscape and the influence and application of the CCSS. To ignore this would place our students at a significant disadvantage for their post-secondary education, which is not an acceptable option for our families. For example, the SAT and ACT assessments, as well as other standardized tests, will be geared to the CCSS. Such realities are among the factors that must be taken into account when judging whether it is best to adopt, adapt or reject the CCSS. In preparing our students for the future, Catholic schools must constantly emphasize creativity, critical and analytical thinking, and real-world application in light of Catholic culture and teaching, and be always intent on guiding our students to academic success. …
The Church recognizes that the civil government has the responsibility to assist parents in fulfilling their obligation and right to educate their children. The Church applauds any effort by the state and federal government to ensure that an excellent education is available for all children in the United States. The CCSS was developed for a public school audience. But the CCSS is of its nature incomplete as it pertains to the Catholic school. Our schools have resisted the need to adopt educational trends while addressing the ever changing needs of children in education. We have tried to integrate the best in education while leaving behind what is not appropriate to the Church’s educational mission.

The Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization, is anti-Core and is writing its own curriculum standards for Catholic schools. A story earlier this year in Catholic Education Daily, a publication of the Newman Society, said in part:

Five years after the official release of the Common Core State Standards on June 2, 2010, The Cardinal Newman Society has released two new reports on the experimental reform and remains convinced that the English language arts (ELA) and mathematics standards by themselves are insufficient and even potentially harmful for Catholic schools, which must keep Christ and the Catholic faith as the true core of education.
Even more disconcerting are the many curricula and textbooks that have been labeled “Common Core” but depart from the successful practices and principles of Catholic education, as well as standardized tests adjusted to Common Core standards that have been widely criticized.

And an organization called the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools has urged its more than 65 members not to use the Core standards as written but instead to use annotated versions offered by the group. Its Web site says, “NAPCIS recommends that Catholic faith-based schools not use the Common Core State Standards as the foundation for their educational efforts. As faith-based schools we have a different mission than public schools.”

Just like the Core debate in public education, it isn’t likely that the Catholic conversation is going to end anytime soon.