The Nation's Pulse

Saving Catholic Schools

More and more of them are being shut down -- where they are needed most and where charter schools are in shortest supply.

By 3.5.10

The poor black and Latino children attending Sacred Heart School in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, D.C., probably don't know that Century Foundation Senior Fellow Richard Kahlenberg thinks their participation in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship and other voucher plans merely helps to make "'separate-but-equal' work." Chances are, they don't even know about the contention among progressives and even otherwise school choice-supporting centrist Democrats that public funding of parochial schools is somehow a plot among conservatives to cut government spending and violates the Constitution's ban against the intermingling of church and state.

Nor should they or their parents care one way or another. Although the District's traditional public school system is undergoing a much-needed overhaul led by Blackberry-touting reform maven Michelle Rhee, just 49 percent of its high school freshmen graduate four years later; a mere 12 percent of its 8th-graders in 2007 had reading skills rated "proficient" or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test of academic performance.

These families shouldn't have to wait until Rhee turns around the district's performance in order to avail their children of opportunities for high-quality academic instruction. Their interest in improving the quality of education for their children should outweigh concerns about the racial and ethnic segregation that they choose. And their hard-earned tax dollars shouldn't remain captured by a district that isn't delivering the goods.

Centrist and progressive Democrat school reformers are certainly familiar with these arguments. After all, they have successfully used them in beating back efforts by teachers unions, traditional school districts and some civil rights activists (usually the kind that spend more time on manicured Ivy League campuses than in gritty urban locales) to stamp out and restrict the existence of public charter schools, the publicly-funded-privately-operated entities that have become their favored form of school choice. And they should keep it in mind whenever vouchers (and similar tax credit programs) come up for discussion. If nonprofit- and for-profit operators can be trusted with public funding through charters, then school vouchers used for Catholic and private schools shouldn't be a problem.

Vouchers and Catholic schools are once again in the headlines thanks in part to an effort by U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman this week to revive the D.C. Opportunity program after it was all but shut down by Congressional Democrats last year. Despite attempts by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and others to quash discussion among Democrats about the program -- which helps 1,716 students attend Catholic and other private schools in the District -- calls for its revival continue to come not only from conservative Republicans, but even from the likes of disgraced former mayor Marion Barry, who launched his career as a member of the local school board. A similar plan may be considered in Illinois thanks to the decision by controversial state Sen. James Meeks to reverse his past opposition to vouchers. 

It also comes as the nation's Catholic school systems, no longer able to count on nearly-free labor from clergy and lacking the taxing power granted to traditional school districts for financing their (equally-unsustainable) teacher compensation packages, continue their secular decline. Just yesterday, Baltimore's archdiocesan school system announced that it would close 13 of its 80 school districts -- nearly all of them in the most-impoverished inner city areas. The fact that Mob Town has just 34 charter schools -- and that Maryland is one of the most-restrictive states for starting charters -- means that 2,152 soon-to-be former Catholic school students have even fewer options for high-quality instruction. This has Thomas B. Fordham Institute scholar Andy Smarick wishing that "we could give a little attention to preserving the high-performing, high-poverty private schools that are disappearing before our eyes."

Certainly the school reform movement -- especially centrist Democrats -- can claim stunning success in getting policymakers and even parents to embrace their prescriptions of standardized tests, stricter accountability measures, mayoral control of school districts, and expansion of charter schools. Even President Barack Obama has embraced reform through his $4.3 billion Race to the Top effort; the program has helped convince legislators and governors in states such as California to turn their back on their allies and eliminate restrictions on the geographic and demographic growth of charters. But even as they have spurred the creation of new charters, reformers are letting dissipate the other choices for poor urban and rural families to escape the worst traditional public education has to offer.

The number of Catholic schools in the United States -- 42 percent of which are located in big cities -- has declined by 12 percent between the 1998-1999 and 2008-2009 school years, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. But it isn't just diocesan and parish schools shutting down. Eleven hundred sixty-two urban parochial schools shut their doors between 2000 and 2006. The impact of these closures on urban poor and even middle-class families cannot be underestimated, especially given the success of parochial schools in improving student academic achievement, stemming dropouts and even sparking college completion. The average nine-year-old Catholic school student scored 8 percent higher on the 2007 NAEP than his counterpart in a traditional district; that gap remained constant among middle-school and high school students tested.

It is especially problematic given that other school choice options aren't nearly as plentiful. Intra-district choice options such as magnet schools -- long touted by Kahlenberg and others as the best solution over vouchers and charters -- hardly exist. When they do, these options usually end up being used by middle-class households, who use their strong political connections (and exploit ability tracking systems that serve as the gateways into such schools) to assure seats for their own children.

Charters -- the more-preferable school choice option among reformers -- have generally proven to be better than magnets in promoting choice and improving academic achievement; a study released last March by the RAND Corporation shows that children attending charters in Chicago and Florida are 7-15 percent more likely to attend college than those attending traditional public schools. But, until recently, many states have restricted the number and location of charter schools. And even with Race to the Top, teachers unions and school districts have assured that charters may not reach urban neighborhoods. Last month, legislators in Alabama, at the behest of the National Education Association affiliate there, rejected the latest effort to allow the opening of charters.

None of this, of course, sways progressive critics of vouchers (and ultimately, of private and parochial schools altogether). This isn't surprising. After all, Kahlenberg once declared that "the purpose of public schools is not to satisfy the individual preferences of parents." But it doesn't explain why centrist Democrats such as former New America Foundation scholar Sara Mead thinks vouchers "just change where pupils are allocated among existing schools."

Certainly their discomfort with handing money over to religious operators comes into play. But as pointed out by Fordham in a 2008 report on reviving urban Catholic schools, the federal government already pours $3 billion annually into Catholic Charities alone. And don't forget that school reformers are more than happy to back charters, which are operated by nonprofit and even for-profit organizations. Considering that as much of the decline in the number of urban parochial schools is related to the competition for instructors -- fueled largely by the dealmaking between school districts and teachers unions that have made teaching the most-lucrative profession in the public sector -- a redistribution of wealth back to the urban parents (who must pay for both private schools out of pocket and traditional districts out of payroll withholding) wouldn't seem all that unfair.

There are efforts underway to preserve Catholic schools, even if they aren't exactly providing religious education. In D.C., the Archdiocese of Washington has spun off seven of its schools and converted them into charters; a similar effort is likely to take place in Indianapolis, where two schools are considering a conversion. But in the process, the schools do end up losing some of the faith and values that have helped make Catholic education successful in the first place. To be sure, American public education has always provided something similar to the religious instruction in parochial schools in the form of civics (including pledging allegiance to the flag); in fact, teaching students about American values was one of the foremost reasons why public schools were created. This is the argument that may come to play in the next year as Brookwood Presbyterian Church, a Columbus, Ohio church, sues state officials after they rejected its efforts to sponsor a charter school.

Given the success of charters, Centrist Democrat school reformers can no longer argue against voucher plans. And if the ultimate goal is to assure that every child, no matter their race or wealth of their parents, has opportunities for high-quality education, then preserving Catholic and other parochial and private schools (and in turn, supporting voucher plans) is no longer just an option. 

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at