Equitable Government Partnerships Foster Student Safety in the Sacred Sector


These articles are meant to strengthen the capacity of all faith-based organizations to live out their faith-based missions. If you are already a Sacred Sector participant, log into the Participant Portal to access the toolbox resources. If your organization is interested in becoming a Sacred Sector participant, click here.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, schools and governments on the state and federal levels have been developing safety measures to protect faculty, staff and students. These discussions often prioritize safety in public schools; after all, school shootings rarely occur in private school settings. Nevertheless, private, often faith-based schools remain vulnerable to the same safety threats as public schools, and should be included in conversations regarding student safety.

School safety is not the only discussion that neglects the needs of non-government or faith-based entities. In any matter involving government support, faith-based organizations tend to be overlooked due to the perception that faith-based and government collaborations foster religious establishment or undermine religious freedom. Yet the best way to prevent both religious establishment and religious freedom violations is to allow faith-based and secular organizations to have equal opportunity to apply for government funds.

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) is a private professional education association that supports the faith formation and missions of Catholic school communities. According to Dale McDonald, Director of Public Policy at NCEA, one of the organization’s priorities is to promote the acknowledgement of Catholic schools as major contributors to the educational enterprise in the United States. As McDonald put it, “We advocate for the rights of Catholic school students to be equitably treated in the participation of government programs where it would be appropriate on an equal basis as their public school counterparts.”

As NCEA advocates for the right of Catholic schools to have equal access to government funded benefits, it highlights the way that faith-based organizations as a whole should be able to compete for government support on a level playing field. NCEA is able to effectively advocate for government partnerships on behalf of Catholic schools because of how it lives out its sacred mission in its public policy engagement and public positioning.

Public Policy

NCEA clearly understands the right of Catholic schools to compete for government funds. Yet not all faith-based organizations are aware of this right. Sacred Sector provides resources that enable faith-based organizations to understand the key issue areas impacting their work. One resource is the Government Partnerships Public Policy Toolbox, which says,

As a general rule these days, government creates partnerships with FBOs based on the effectiveness and quality of their services without requiring these organizations to surrender their distinctive, religiously-based contributions to the public good. “Level playing field” federal funding rules date back to the Clinton administration, were applied widely to federal funding during the George W. Bush administration, were reaffirmed — with some changes — by the Obama administration, and continue in effect today.

NCEA promotes awareness of faith-based organizations’ ability to partner with government through both advocacy and education. McDonald conducts workshops, leads webinars and writes articles that teach schools about laws that impact them, how they can access government services and how to file appeals if the process doesn’t work the way it ought to.

Another way NCEA effectively engages in public policy is by closely tracking upcoming bills drafted in response to the Parkland shooting. Such bills include provisions for increased training and security, school social workers and psychologists, and police officers.

“If there is government funding, [...] Catholic schools should have equal capacity to apply for the funding as well,” said McDonald. “Our schools should have equal access to resources to maintain safety for students. All kids deserve to be protected. If you are doing it for one set, you need to do it for everyone.”

Although state and federal policies on this topic are still emerging, NCEA is committed to providing Catholic schools with access to safety and prevention resources. Altogether, by being aware of the current and changing public policy context surrounding Catholic schools, NCEA effectively lives out its sacred mission and empowers Catholic schools to do the same. To learn more about the public policy impacting faith-based and government partnerships, see the Government Partnerships Public Policy Toolbox.

Public Positioning

Part of McDonald’s job as Director of Public Policy is to promote public awareness of NCEA’s sacred identity.  “Religious freedom is important for us,” said McDonald. “We approach all our programs by saying we should not be excluded or compromised because we are faith-based.”

NCEA’s public engagement strategy has been effective. NCEA is well-known as a faith-based organization promoting faith-based education, and is also known for its work on safety issues — including school shooters, bullying and cyber issues — within Catholic schools. For NCEA, their commitment to faith-based education and safety within schools are both connected to their sacred identity.

“A major tenet of our Church teaching is the dignity of the human person,” said McDonald. “That is part of the whole notion of forming Christian community that acts in accordance with Gospel principles.” NCEA’s high view of human dignity motivates its dedication to excellent Catholic education and as well as equitable student safety protections.

NCEA’s consistent and open commitment to the religious freedom of Catholic schools has helped establish NCEA as a public authority on the subject. By expressing its sacred mission in its public interactions, NCEA exhibits how faith-based organizations can cultivate positive and effective public perceptions which allow them to better provide for their service recipients. For more information about successful public engagement, see the Government Partnerships Public Positioning Toolbox.


When it comes to accessing government funds, faith-based organizations can be the last to earn a seat at the table. Yet in many instances, faith-based organizations are legally permitted to compete for such funds in the same way that secular organizations can. As government programs for student safety develop, faith-based organizations must be included. NCEA is one organization committed to ensuring that faith-based organizations — especially Catholic schools — can have equal access to government funding. Through awareness, advocacy and education, NCEA actively engages in the policies shaping faith-based organization’s right to financial government partnerships. Moreover, its successful public positioning has allowed NCEA to become an active player that connects its sacred mission to its advocacy and education work. Though policies on student safety are still developing, one thing remains clear: NCEA is one faith-based organization that will not be overlooked.

If you are not a Sacred Sector participant and would like access to resources on public policy, organizational practices and public positioning for faith-based organizations, sign up to become a Sacred Sector participant here.

Kathryn Mae Post is an associate with the Center for Public Justice (CPJ). She contributes to two different initiatives at CPJ: Sacred Sector and the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA). She graduated from Calvin College in 2018 with a BA in both political science and English.