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Charter schools and Catholic schools

The push is on in Washington this week to put more federal money into the charter-school movement. That may be good news for parents whose children are in substandard public schools, but it's bad news for Catholic schools, which are losing enrollment to the publicly funded charter schools.The Obama administration's push for increased federal funding comes on top of vast corporate philanthropic support for charter schools from the Gates Foundation, The Broad Foundation and others. As I wrote in Commonweal last year, the charter schools often pick up some of the trappings parents find attractive in Catholic schools, such as strong discipline and uniforms.I don't see how all but the strongest Catholic schools can survive the competition with charter schools unless there is a stronger financial commitment to Catholic schools on the part of major foundations and, yes, Catholics themselves. Catholic schools have long provided a refuge from the educational fads that afflict public education. Setting aside their religious mission, that alone is reason enough to save them. The campaign to use corporate methodology - performance data, bonuses, marketing - that is behind the charter-school movement may well prove to be another educational fad that goes nowhere. No less than Diane Ravitch, an educational historian who had advocated a more business-like approach to education, seems to have come to that conclusion. "The more I saw, the more I lost the faith," she writes in her upcoming book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," according to The Washington Post.

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, 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).



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My two daughters are in parochial school in a neighborhood which has a very good public school. Their school is small, less than 20 children in each of my daughters' grades, and I know it worries about enrollment. Tuition is about $8,000 for the two of them. Cheap for a private school, but still $8,000 more than "free". I'm happy to pay it, and feel like I'm getting a bargain, but I'm sure there are a lot of families where $8,000 puts Catholic school out of reach for them. I agree that Catholics need to make a greater financial commitment to Catholic education. And we need to be especially committed to supporting schools in poor neighborhoods. But I don't think private philanthropy by itself will bridge the funding gap; Catholic schools need to be able to access some public money to subsidize their operations. I think government funding of charter schools actually brings us one step closer to government funding of Catholic schools. The more charter schools there are, with their diverse programs and focus areas, the more difficult it is for opponents to frame a policy argument against public subsidy for Catholic schools. My major concerns with Catholic schools and charter schools are around how they treat their workforce. Compensation is shockingly low for Catholic school teachers, and I've heard a few stories where charter school teachers aren't doing much better. I think that's a fairness issue that really needs to be addressed.

Developing strong Reading, comprehension, and analytical skills grounded in The Universal Truth of Love, was the foundation of the Catholic grammar school that I attended.

Charter schools are a fad in and of themselves. So it's utterly unclear on the concept to choose charter schools supposedly to avoid educational fads.

That being said, I believe that Catholic Schools should qualify as Charter schools and be eligible for funding except for funding in instruction in Catholic That being said, Catholic Schools should be eligible for Charter School funding except for Religious instruction.

What I meant to say is that Catholic Schools should qualify as Charter Schools and be eligible for Charter school funding except for Religious Instruction.

Hi Paul, I noticed your blog and wanted to add my two cents. In my view, and as I write in my new book, charter schools are contributing to the demise of Catholic education because they claim to offer a safe, disciplined refuge at no charge. For working families, that is an attractive offer. Turning Catholic schools into charter schools is no solution, because to qualify for public funding, they would have to remove anything that identifies them as Catholic schools, To become a charter, they would have to stop being Catholic school, so that is a very bad bargain indeed. I have been a friend and supporter of Catholic schools for many years (although I am not Catholic and attended public schools). I have provided scholarships to Catholic students in high schools, and I regularly contribute to the parochial school in my neighborhood. In the interest of diversity and quality, I hope that Catholic schools survive as Catholic schools. The big philantrhopists now pumping many millions into public education should turn their attention to Catholic education. Gates, Broad, Dell, Walton and other big foundations could save Catholic education and preserve one of the great institutions of our democratic society. If we acted on the principle of public money for public schools, and private money for nonpublic schools, the future of Catholic education would be secure.Diane Ravitch

Nancy --I agree. There is no reason why, if a Catholic school spends 10 per cent of the tuition on religious instruction, the government couldn't just give those students grants of 90 per cent of the cost. This would be a simple bookkeeping matter. The money could be given directly to the parents who would then pay the school. As I remember, the original GI Bill veterans at Catholic colleges got the money directly from the federal gov't. and then paid the school. This avoided the issue of "entanglement" of church and state. However, I can see renewed opposition to such a system because Islamic schools would also be eligible, and that can be a bit frightening, depending on who runs the Muslim schools.About charter schools--Since Katrina (2005) New Orleans public education is undergoing a massive experiment with charter schools. An enormous amount of help been given by universities and individuals from out of state, including places like Yale. My nephew is a volunteer math tutor, and he tells me that some of the charter schools have made enormous progress, but others have not. What is important, I think, is that the successful ones show that *it can be done*. Now to figure out why some programs are working extremely well while others aren't. I don't think they know yet.One way the charter schools are alike is in having a principal who has a great deal of power in running the school. But not every such principal is succeeding, so that is not *the* key change, at least not by itself.

Diane Ravitch's statement about private vs. public funds for catholic education is true. Private funds will save catholic education, as they always have. I also agree with the Post statement in Ravitch's article that the challenges of the teacher handling diverse students is underestimated. I am a "seasoned" public school teacher. The "elephant in the room" when public education is considered by administrations, is the decline in parent support that students have today. That translates into a whole host of problems that public education never even considered in the past. We are the parents, and often we even study with the children because it is not done at home. Homework often cannot be an expectation. Getting information home and back again is an ordeal. Education is more people driven than most professions. It is the relationships of the teachers and students and parents and administrators that will drive the success of the school--not a public education policy. Our schools mirror society, and we have to deal with the myriad of problems brought to us from that diverse group. Education is a messy word, because it is not as simple as most would presume.

Denise --One of my friends was a very fine remedial English teacher. She says that it isn't just parental interest that is needed, that if a child doesn't see it's parent(s) reading there is no way it will grow up to read. The sad thing is that many parents who want to help are themselves functionally illiterate. My friend says that they should read simple stuff, anything, including what we would call trash, e.g., the National Inquirer. Kids MUST see the parent(s) reading. Kids imitate their parents for good and ill. Unfortunately there aren't many adult books for adults who read at a fourth grade level supplied by public libraries. I wonder if any studies have been done about this.

Ann--You and your friend are right. Reading is all important, and often the parents are not equipped to help their children. Children at the elementary level do have a variety of ways that reading is presented to them. A program called "Accelerated Reader" helps kids compete for reading points by reading at their own level. As far as books at a more elementary level for adults, perhaps a GED program teacher could be of help.

it used to be that pastors had a lot of power over their parish schools. If that is still so, I wonder whether objections might be made to Catholic schools on constitutional grounds because of the passtors' authority.

Maybe the answer is obvious to other people, but for those who don't think government should subsidize private schools, why exactly? I'm saving the state a fair chunk of money by not taking advantage of a pretty huge entitlement. A voucher or tax credit program would help me a lot and would still save the government a nice chunk of money, so why not do that?

"...Islamic Schools will also be eligible, and that can be a bit frightening, depending on who is running the Muslim schools."This is true for those schools run by those who worship the god of coercion rather than The God Who Is Love, Nature's God.

Those children who are able to master the art of reading through proper Reading Instruction, which includes phonics, as well as developing reading comprehension and analytical skills, are the children most likely to suceed in school and continue to read as adults.

Nancy --That might be true, but the problem is not so simple.Can you read this? Strng aftrshck ws rprtd n Sndy. Th dth tll s xpctd t rs pst 400.You don't need phonics for that. Ovr=smplfctn s th nmy f trth. Smplfctn, ys, ovr-smplfctn, no..

Paul, what "fads" in public schools are you referring to? Perhaps we could use as an example the shift in my son's public school from reading a list of age-appropriate "great books" to reading from a list of many books within a particular genre.I suspect that, to a large extent, this move is less a fad than a response to parents who have yanked their kids out of English classes b/c they or their denomination rejected certain of these books, often for what I would consider uninformed reasons. (Much ado was made about not reading "Huck Finn" because of the word "nigger.")Catholic schools attract a much more homogenous group of children and parents, and so are able to resist "fads" (as well as change and innovation) because the curriculum is designed to promote their religious objectives. These schools are also ill-equipped to handle special needs children (though public funding could correct this to some extent).Such schools can also be extremely unsupportive of kids with emotional problems arising from family problems like divorce. At my son's school, the parental volunteer requirement effectively screened out children of single working mothers.Moreover, to address Nancy's point, the religious element is often woven into the entire curriculum in any sectarian school. At my son's school, the Christmas program was a thinly disguised screed against the Anglican Church's persecution of Catholics. Amish schools teach that the earth is flat and that black people are "mistakes." As a taxpayer, I would be very hinky about my money going to fund such ventures unless those schools were willing to make changes in that type of curriculum.

Some of the points Jean made are also some of my concerns about Catholic Schools. I sent my children to a Catholic School until middle grades largely because the curriculum could not compete well enough with what the public schools had to offer. I know this varies widely with location. Sometimes the homogenous catholic school group can be detrimental. I remember my fifth grader stating that his new school (the public school) was more Christian than his Catholic School. I think that spoke volumes about the cliques that had formed among the students as well as the teachers.

Can you read this? Ann, I can, because I have mastered my vowel and consonant sounds, but I have worked with children who would have difficulty reading the sentences you have provided because they need instruction in phonics.Perhaps someone can give some examples of how the Christian ethic, woven into the curriculum of a school, would be detrimental to that curriculum.

Thanks very much, Diane. I'm looking forward to the book! I hope it gets a wide audience.Jean, when I refer to educational fads, I am thinking about such things as not teaching grammar. The Catholic schools have not been so quick to fall for the dictates of the National Council of Teachers of English regarding the dangers of teaching grammar.

Christianity is practice more than teaching.Nancy--Not all Catholic students show their christianity in practice that I'm sure they have been taught. I think the sameness of their student population does not challenge the practice of their christianity. The public school is just that--the public. And the challenge is for the Catholic student or teacher to stretch their Christian principles and apply them. I'm sure each Catholic school situation is different.

Paul, thanks for clarifying. At the college level, my test of K-12 grammar instruction is to ask students how many were taught to "put a comma where there's a pause," which is usually a sure sign that the teachers they've had either don't know grammar themselves or don't pass it on to students.The number of students who raise their hands has been going down steadily, and some have even heard of a relative clause. I spend less time on remedial grammar and punctuation. I continue to see traditional (18-21 year olds) struggle with larger comp issues (coherence, unity, development). Older students have less trouble with this, and my sense is that some of these problems have to do with age and immaturity as much as instruction.Nancy, I see no danger in teaching Christian values in a Catholic school whatever. Nor do I have a problem with the code of student conduct at my kid's public school having Judeo-Christian-based values, ex., treating others as you want to be treated, showing concern for the marginalized, etc.It's the teaching of a particular religion's dogma that I would object to paying for out of public funds. And I would object to sending my kid to a Catholic school that relegated dogma to an hour of optional religious instruction. So I guess I'm on the side of separation of public funds from sectarian schools on this one.

Try to remember that if public funding becomes available for sectarian schools, not only Catholic schools will qualify for such funding. Of course you can justify funding for your own "reasonable" choices, but the proper thought experiment for determining how you feel about public funding for religious schools is to ask yourself how you would feel about funding Islamic schools that teach children that Christians are infidels who deserve death if they fail to convert. Regarding teacher salaries: How do you think your tuition is kept so low? Whose pocket do you think it comes out of?Regarding "saving" the PSD money by going to parochial school: Not really. Much of the cost of education is overhead -- the marginal cost of educating one or two kids is small. A smart board doesn't cost less because there is one less student in the class. Moreover, since, at any time, you could change your mind (as someone up thread did) and opt for the public alternative, most public school districts (at least in the suburbs) have to plan facilities with the assumption that all kids living in the district might be attending. Mine certainly does -- fewer than 5% of students in the district go to private schools, and many of those hop back and forth depending on their grade level and parental income situation.

We provide government grants and below market loans to needy students attending accredited colleges- both private and public. I can also get a tax deduction for college expense, even at a church-run school, as long as it is accredited. As a working mom, I was also able to pay for some of my daughters' preschool on a pretax basis. Since we have been able to figure out how to subsidize private education at both the preschool and college levels, it seems like we should be able to do so at the primary and secondary levels, too. How we choose to educate our children seems to be a very personal decision. The issue of public funding also seems to be purely political. I would go for a system that maximizes parent choice.

Vouchers can be done in a manner that will pass constitutional muster, but they don't really give a choice to anyone except at the margins. The decision not to enact them is a political not a constitutional choice. The reality on the ground is that in most communities, the overwhelming majority of people don't resort to private schools and don't want to fund them. They certainly would object to the funding of the Islamic academies I postulated above, and these cannot be constitutionally fenced out while Catholic schools are fenced in.

In Albuquerque, there is big tension between the public school administration and the charter schols over finance management of the latter.How well public monies are used, when public education funds are in jeopardy, makes me wonder about an increase in charter schools.I don't see a lot of movement towards public funding of parochial schools, not only because of Church State issue perceptions but also issues about who will be served.That laps over into the private funding area. If you live in an area where public schools are excellent, why would you want to send your child to parochial school instead of demanding quality religious ed from your parish?Still, one might look at the Memhis example and ask if Church leadership is really trying to reach out to business leaders sufficiently in terms of whom it's trying to reach?If you live in an area with poor public schools, do you think man ywill step up to the plate and donate in this era of looking out for numero uno?

"o question is raised concerning the power of the state reasonably to regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare. (268 U.S. 510, 534) "" This is from an Oregon decision. If this holds, it seems to me that it is at least theoretically possible to regulate Muslim schools which preach the overthrow of the government. How to deal with dogmas such as violent jihad would be a much more difficult challenge. However, the killing of Christians who refuse to convert shouldn't be a practical problem for kids of other religions because their parents wouldn't send them to such schools.Which raises the question: should such violent Muslim teachings be tolerated in *private* Muslim schools?

"How we choose to educate our children seems to be a very personal decision. The issue of public funding also seems to be purely political. I would go for a system that maximizes parent choice."It seems to me the best choice, then, is to have NO public education, to let parents keep their education tax dollars and invest them instead in any number of private options, including home-schooling.Whether the elimination of public schools would further erode unity in American society--which I think was and is a laudable goal of public education--strikes me as moot; I think our society has already begun to fragment beyond the ability of public education to repair it.

Jean, I actually disagree with you that our society is more fragmented than ever. We certainly have higher income inequality than we did 30 years ago. We also have had a resurgence of residents born outside the U.S. -- but there have been other times in our history when both of these trends were much higher than they are now. When I was in school, I am sure like you, my clases were relatively homogenous -- mostly white, 99% English speaking parents. While the current status quo may feel like regression, as someone once said to me, the fact that previous generations of immigrants were forced to give up their cultures to the degree that they were was not necessarily positive for them or for society. The balance may be hard to find, but I think it would be wrong to say that today's diverse group of students are not legitimately searching for a way to be assimilated into the larger culture, even if it is not in the same way that previous generations were.

The fad that teaching phonics should be replaced with "the whole word method" rather than teaching phonics and the whole word method simultaneously, has contributed to reading difficulties for many children.

Despite all of the criticism leveled at public schools, there is no better way to unify our society than through a free, public school education. Positive attributes of the system are a fairly unified curriculum, testing standards, technology instruction, expected behaviors, and a fair amount of consistency for such a sprawling system. There are critcisms to be sure, but we need to see the glass as half full not the reverse. I'm for as much federal aid to private schools as those schools can obtain because their parents are taxpayers too.

Barbara, I suppose perception is everything, but, just to clarify, I'm not talking about ethnic or cultural fragmentation, but a sense that Americans just don't want to get along with other Americans anymore, but prefer to live in their own little enclaves away from polluting influences. But, then, I live in a highly polarized extended family, in an area with a lot of teabaggers and militia types, and hang around the perimeters of a Church that seems to be pretty polarized.

If you are hanging around the perimeters of The Church, you can expect polarization. It is through, with, and in His Church, that His Church is One.


When I was in grad school at Fordham, classes were held in the late afternoon and early evening. I supported myself by teaching during the day in the East Bronx at a wonderful public elementary school that accepted all comers, and because of an unusually positive atmosphere, was often sent students who were not doing well elsewhere. Many of the most troubled students we took in then were transfers from the local parochial school system, rejects, really, who had been convinced they could not learn just because they were difficult to teach. It often took years to help them rebuild their confidence in their own abilities. Today, many charter schools don't pretend to accept students with learning problems, and so avoid doing that sort of harm, though their exclusionary policies present other problems. Having seen its good effects, I do believe strongly in the wholesome effect of public education on the elementary level, open to a variety of students of differing abilities and backgrounds.

Many parents here in the Bronx are very supportive of charter schools. In the neighborhoods where I organized in the Northwest Bronx, parents were generally very unhappy with the public schools. (These were all low-income neighborhoods ) Behind public safety, education was the number two organizing issue; those two concerns are actually the things that drive people to move away. It's been almost 20 years since I was a neighborhood organizer, but I know education is still a big organizing issue in these communities. What I've noticed is that, in my middle-class Bronx neighborhood, the public elementary school is very good, but in poor neighborhoods just adjacent, the public schools are still not very good at all. To Susan's point about student transfers from parochial schools to public schools, I just want to add that those transfers also work in the opposite direction. My daughters' Catholic school often gets children from the local public school whose parents were unhappy with thepublic school (for a whole variety of reasons). I think there is room for many types of schools to respond to community needs and family preferences. One thing I would really hope to see is a system that gives poor families a range of educational choices closer to what the children of affluent parents have.

My memory of New York is fading as the city is obviously changing, but I seem to remember that the scholos in Riverdale in the Northwest Bronx were a-one, and "down the hill" were some of the"savage inequalities' spoken about then.So the issue of who gets served is very important and the mission of parochial schools and perhaps charter schools should be eminently clear as well as its impact on the local community and the community at large.

Bob Nunz- That's still about right, though down the hill is better now (especially the charter schools). There was a really toxic campaign about ten years ago or so, when Riverdale parents, unhappy about the quality of the middle school, were successful in having a new school built "down the hill" which syphoned off all of the children from the Marble Hill Housing Projects, keeping them out of Riverdale and in their "own" neighborhood.

One last memory -when I worked in the Bronx Courthouse, Sacred Heart in Highbridge was one of the poorest areas around, but Fordham was trying to work in conjunction with the local parish school to upgrade.Also remember the jesuits making big efforts in Harlem,Keep wondering if diocesan approach to education is sotied up in maintainin gwhat it has that only the religious orders wil become the servants of the really poor.Just a question???? But an important one, I think, with refernce to education.

If anyone is still following this thread, today's Baltimote Sun has an interesting op-ed by Dan Rodricks on the isue of maintaining catholic schools there and priorities and episcopal leadership and example.

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