New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn have announced that they are exploring whether to convert a number of Catholic schools in danger of closing into publicly funded charter schools in which religion could not be taught. During a news conference in City Hall, the bishop told the familiar story of the drowning man who turns down a series of rescue attempts, dies, and arrives in heaven with the question of why God did not save him. God responds that help was sent four times - why didn't the man take advantage of it?The mayor, the bishop said, "is throwing out a life preserver" with his offer to turn four of a group of 14 schools targeted for possible closing into charter schools.Even so, it is a life preserver most other bishops (as far as I know, only the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. has gone this route) would likely turn down. It raises many questions. For example: Is religious education essential to the academic success of urban Catholic schools (by educating the whole person, body, mind spirit)?Another, noted in the New York Times' account, is the feeling among Catholic educators that the spread of charter schools is endangering the Catholic school system. At least superficially, the charter schools tend to resemble Catholic schools, with their small classes, safe atmosphere, more personal approach, uniforms, etc. The free tuition makes these schools very attractive to the parents of would-be Catholic school students.I would add that there is much the mayor and other public officials can do if they really want to save Catholic schools. For example, during Bloomberg's mayoralty, public schools have stopped Catholic high schools from recruiting applicants at high-school information nights held in middle schools. On the state level, Governor David Paterson recently pulled back from a plan to cut a program that provided $55 million a year to nonpublic schools to compensate for complying with state mandates to record and report attendance. But although money was budgeted in previous years, it was often not paid out. The public education bureaucracy can be quite hostile to Catholic and other nonpublic schools.Bishop DiMarzio noted that Catholic Charities provides extensive community service, and said that the charter schools would fall within that tradition of service. Others, such as the authors of a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, also have suggested turning some inner-city Catholic schools into charter schools.The problem is that this may hasten the demise of even more urban Catholic schools. And, contrary to what Mayor Bloomberg says, the charter schools are far from a proven success. One of the great strengths of the Catholic school system is that it has resisted the fads that sweep through public education. And if it should turn out a few years down the line that charter schools were just one more false hope, what will the alternative be if the Catholic schools have closed?
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.