By Mary Deturris Poust
As if Catholic schools didn't have enough to worry about with declining enrollments and rising costs, a relatively new shadow is looming over their future survival in the form of charter schools.
These taxpayer-funded public schools look very much like the private Catholic schools they imitate, and their increasing popularity and expansion -- especially in the inner cities -- is siphoning off Catholic school students whose parents see them as providing all of the parochial-school rigor and discipline with none of the costs.
Charter schools, which are funded through state and local school taxes, are operated by charter organizations, many of which are for-profit companies that are cashing in on parents' desire for an alternative to traditional public schools, often in the Catholic schools' own backyards.
Father Ronald Nuzzi, director of the Alliance for Catholic Education Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame, told Our Sunday Visitor that charters schools are a "serious threat" to Catholic schools on a competitive basis and that only in rare instances, when states have both strong tuition tax credit or voucher legislation and strong charter school legislation, can both types of schools thrive simultaneously.
"You basically have an entrepreneurial, semi-private school that's just absent any religious affiliation competing with the Catholic schools that have to charge tuition to make it, so it's hard to compete on a level footing when the cost is zero to the parent," he said, noting that Arizona is one of the rare exceptions where strong tuition tax credit legislation has offset any threats to Catholic schools by charters.
But the very thing that makes charter schools and Catholic schools direct competitors also makes them unlikely allies. Many Catholic school systems must walk a fine line between promoting school choice and -- indirectly the schools that could put them out of business -- and alienating a group of advocates who could eventually help pave the way for funding measures that could benefit Catholic school families in the long run.
"It's a political situation. Catholic school leaders don't want to alienate the pro-charter school crowd because these same people will fund charters, vouchers, school choice, tuition tax credits," said Father Nuzzi. "It's a delicate political balance, but someone has to ask the question whether that's getting in bed with the enemy."
In the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., charter schools have established a foothold that is likely to grow stronger quickly with Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to double the number of charter schools in the state.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Mary Jane Herb, superintendent of schools for the Albany diocese, told OSV that in instances where Catholic school students have left to go to charters, the diocese is seeing a "yo-yo effect," where students return to Catholic school after realizing that charters aren't necessarily just like their Catholic counterparts.
The growing problem now, Sister Herb explained, is that as charter schools expand, more students are enrolling in charters starting in kindergarten, meaning they have no Catholic school experience as a comparison to return to.
"A lot of people see it as the same thing but free. That's a hard sell to the people who cannot afford to put food on the table," Sister Herb explained.
She said that a recent editorial in an education journal questioned whether charter schools would be the "tipping point" that would force reform in public education.
"Until we have full choice, we will never reach the tipping point. People don't have full choice. They have a choice between kinds of public schools," she added, alluding to efforts to get tuition tax credits passed in order to ease the double payment burden that Catholic school families face through tuition and school taxes.
In a move questioned by some school superintendents around the country, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., recently announced that it would convert seven of its parochial schools into charter schools, leaving faculty and students in place but turning operations over to a charter organization.
The archdiocese said they would have had to close the financially struggling schools regardless and that the charter conversion will save many local children from choosing between leaving their communities or entering a problem-plagued traditional public school system.
Schools Superintendent Patty Weitzel-O'Neill told OSV that faced with a shifting population and declining student enrollment, fueled in part by the increased presence of charter schools, the archdiocese -- in consultation with its Center City Consortium -- opted to convert the schools in order to allow local students to remain in their neighborhoods and receive high-quality education, something she called a "hard but sound" economic decision.
"I think charters and the impact of charters is part of a broader shift that is going on, but I think our choice in Washington, to allow these seven schools to convert to charters that are values-based, is not turning our back on the mission of the Church to serve children who would otherwise not be served with a quality education. I think we did the right thing," said Weitzel-O'Neill, noting that four out of five students in the schools slated for conversion are non-Catholics.
The schools, which will not be affiliated with their original Catholic schools or parishes in any way other than as renters of parish buildings, will no longer be able to teach religious education, although a religious sister will head one of the schools. Instead the schools will provide a "values-based" curriculum, something that is part of a public school effort to teach virtues such as tolerance and responsibility through literature and philosophy instead of religion.
Father Nuzzi, who called the D.C. decision "an experiment" and "a guess," said that some Catholic school leaders were "infuriated" by the promotion of the new charter schools as "values-based," which he said implied that this was a new concept on the education scene.
"No school is values-free. Charter schools are not values free. What they are is religion free," Father Nuzzi said, stressing that Catholic education is fundamentally different from public education "from the get-go."
"Every subject, the ethos of the school, the nature of the faculty makes Catholic education distinct ... It's somewhat incomplete to educate a child outside of that belief system," he said.
Father Nuzzi explained that one of the things that make Catholic schools so successful is the faith community that surrounds them, providing students with a network of families and real life examples of faith in action.
They see their teachers serving as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, their friends' parents serving as lectors, their neighbors running the summer festival.
"Catholicism well-lived is good for education," said Father Nuzzi. "We have some long-standing traditional wisdom there. I tell my students, new principals, 'Make the school a Catholic school. That's the best thing you can do for academic achievement.'"
Mary DeTurris Poust is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.
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