Is converting Catholic schools into charter schools better than letting them close? In a growing number of dioceses, that’s precisely the step bishops are taking. In the Archdiocese of Washington, seven previously Catholic schools are in their second year as publicly funded charter institutions. This fall, eight formerly Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Miami opened as charters. And the Diocese of Brooklyn recently applied to New York State to convert one of its schools.

More dioceses are likely to follow suit as they lose the ability to maintain schools in poorer neighborhoods. An influential report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—Who Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools?—encourages bishops to consider charters as an alternative to closings. The study noted that many endangered Catholic schools serve large non-Catholic populations. “In a way, they already are ‘public’ schools; it’s time they receive public funds,” the study argues.

Charter schools are public schools, paid for by government but independent of the local school district and run by nonprofit boards or for-profit companies. While they are free from some regulations that arguably stymie education, such schools must be nonsectarian. Despite that restriction, charters are becoming an increasingly attractive option for bishops trying to cope with the financial obstacles Catholic schools face. This raises some difficult questions:

    •    In purely business terms, charters are the chief competition for Catholic schools, often cutting into the Catholic “market” by offering a free education with such trappings as plaid uniforms and a strong emphasis on discipline and ethics. Does it make sense for the church to create more competitors?

    •    Because religion can’t be part of a public-school curriculum, is the church heading for a day when a truly Catholic education will be available to the well-off but not to the poor?

    •    How essential is the Catholic faith to the success of Catholic schools? Can the achievements of an effective Catholic school be replicated in a secular environment, with the students wearing uniforms but the crucifixes removed from the walls?

Those are questions not only of strategy but also of identity—and there aren’t easy answers. But the problem is not entirely new.

In the nineteenth century there were experiments in which Catholic school buildings were leased to the public schools, and religious instruction was offered before or after classes. Such schools were created in more than a dozen communities, including New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut, and Poughkeepsie, New York, according to Howard Ralph Weisz in Irish-American and Italian-American Educational Views and Activities, 1870–1900: A Comparison (Arno, 1976). The Catholic school system in New York City tried to make such an arrangement in 1875, but the city rejected it. The experiment faded, and by the 1880s, Weisz writes, bishops in Brooklyn, Louisville, and Buffalo were ordering that Catholic parents be refused absolution if they failed to send their children to Catholic schools.

Threats of damnation aside, Catholic leaders and educators still have mixed feelings about working closely with the public schools. When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed in February that some failing Catholic schools be converted to charters, Cardinal Edward Egan of the Archdiocese of New York rejected the idea. But on the other side of the East River in the Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio welcomed Bloomberg’s proposal. DiMarzio supported the plan for values-based charter schools to be run by nonprofit boards, likening them to Catholic social-service agencies and hospitals that help the public with the aid of government funding. The mayor, the bishop said, was throwing him a life preserver.

Even so, a diocesan committee formed to come up with a strategy to preserve the Catholic schools in Brooklyn was largely opposed to the proposal (although no formal vote was taken), according to a participant. Frank Macchiarola, a former New York City school chancellor now serving as chancellor of St. Francis College in Brooklyn, said he was one of the few on the committee to support it. “The issue is to have a vision of service,” he said.

Among the objections was that new charter schools, created on the bishop’s initiative, would draw students away from nearby Catholic schools and cause further closings. Bishop DiMarzio responded by outlining a plan under which 40 percent of the rental income collected on former Catholic school buildings would be shared with the nearest Catholic schools to cushion the impact of competing with a new charter school. (Other rental income would go to the parish renting the property.)

So far, the charter schools that opened last year in Washington have not reduced enrollment in Catholic schools. For more than a decade the archdiocese had tried to retain twelve financially ailing schools in the District of Columbia through the Center City Consortium, which pooled administrative and funding operations. When it became clear that seven of those schools would have to close, the archdiocese decided to convert them into “values-based” charter schools. The other five schools remain Catholic.

Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, said that preliminary, incomplete data show enrollment is up slightly in the five schools that remain Catholic. They absorbed about 120 students, or 12 percent, of the students from schools that closed. “People lined up” for the free charter schools, and 60 percent of the students were new, she said.

No detailed study of the transition has been done, but there seems to be a good deal of continuity in curriculum and staffing. Some school principals remained, including a Catholic sister, and a majority of teachers were retained at higher, publicly funded salaries. Students were permitted to remain in the same school. (Catholic students receive religious instruction through their parishes, not at the charter school.)

Without Catholic teaching infused through the curriculum, according to Weitzel-O’Neill, the “character-based” charters clearly are public schools. “We want to be very clear to the public that these schools are no longer associated with the Catholic schools,” she said, adding that the archdiocese supported the conversion to charters so that the students wouldn’t have to resort to Washington’s troubled public-school system.

In the Archdiocese of Miami, the move to convert to charter schools followed an announcement made last November that the archdiocese could no longer subsidize schools. “The pastors had to make a decision about their schools,” said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for Archbishop John C. Favalora. Having lost vital subsidies, pastors in eight parishes agreed to convert their schools, with seven of the eight schools contracted to the same private company. The schools are no longer connected to the archdiocese. “While we can understand that the decision to close a school was disappointing, especially to some of the alumni, we feel that we’re not leaving the community and are optimistic that this will provide a service to the community,” Agosta said.

The question, then, is how effective can formerly Catholic schools be if they cannot invoke their guiding principles?

When Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, now the U.S. education secretary, proposed that some of the Catholic schools in Chicago become charter schools, the head of the Catholic school system at the time opposed the idea. “We operate Catholic schools. Charter schools are public schools,” the Fordham report quotes Nicholas Wolsonovich, former superintendent of Chicago Catholic schools, as saying. “Religion infuses everything we do in Catholic schools from the way we give the announcements in the morning to the way we run our sports teams at the end of the day.” More recently, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s new schools superintendent, Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, OP, seemed more open to the possibility. “We’re in a listening mode,” she said. At the same time, she expressed serious doubts about the charter-school option. “It could be perceived as abandonment,” she said, emphasizing that any charter school would have to be closely connected to a Catholic entity for the proposal to be considered.

Social-science research shows that an “inspirational ideology” contributes to the success of Catholic schools. A study led by sociologist Anthony Bryk, the basis of the 1993 book Catholic Schools and the Common Good (Harvard University Press), quantified that idea by noting high levels of faculty engagement with students in Catholic high schools. The extended role of teachers is based on a Christian personalism that “encourages staff to care about both the kind of people students become as well as the facts, skills, and knowledge they acquire,” the authors wrote. “We found that the faculty was very caring,” said Peter Holland, a former Xaverian brother and Belmont, Massachusetts, school superintendent, who coauthored the book. “In many cases the teachers were also moderators, coaches, advisors. They saw their job as extending beyond the school day.” Holland said it would be worth trying to convert a fading Catholic school into a charter school if it’s done properly. “There’s risk involved, but it seems to me the reward is keeping schools open,” he said. “I do think that with the right leadership…it can work.” Robert Muccigrosso, formerly associate superintendent of schools in the Brooklyn Diocese and chairman of the Education Department at St. Francis College, agreed. “I think, however, that if you understand the success of Catholic-school education, that is a very tall order,” he said, adding that it would be difficult to replicate “the informal set of relationships that are so vital.”

While Bishop DiMarzio compares charter-school conversions with Catholic hospitals and social programs—institutions that excel at bringing the Catholic social mission into a secular environment—it is hard to say whether the ethos found in a good Catholic school can be maintained over the years in a charter school. Education has always been a particularly fierce political battleground, and activists and teacher unions could make it difficult to create a charter school that is “Catholic” in the same way Catholic Charities is Catholic.

Diocesan officials in Washington, Miami, and Brooklyn emphasized that they don’t see the charter schools as a substitute for Catholic schools. “Catholic schools are optimal because they address the formation of the whole person—the mind, the body, the soul,” said Msgr. Kieran Harrington, spokesman for the Brooklyn Diocese. “This is a completely different product that we would be offering.” Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, said that “for us, the best education is going to be a Catholic school. The best alternative is a values-based charter school.”

It may be that the values-based but nonreligious charter school will catch on and—much like health care and social services—become a ministry of the twenty-first century U.S. Catholic Church. If so, that should not happen without a close study of the early efforts, which hasn’t yet occurred. Locally, the process for making decisions must be transparent and inclusive, and conducted without undue haste. Such decisions must not be made on the precipice. The simple fact that public money is available should not be the determining factor. There could be a temptation to do charter conversions to bring rental income to financially ailing parishes, relieving chanceries of the need to subsidize them. Another caution: What is appropriate in one diocese won’t necessarily work in another because student populations and local laws differ.

If a few charter-school conversions can prompt a broader examination and appreciation of what makes Catholic schools special, perhaps U.S. Catholics will find the will to donate the money their schools need to survive. But if the charter option becomes the easy out in the midst of financial and public-relations crises over failing schools, it could lead toward the end of the tradition of providing Catholic education to the poor.


Related: Course Correction, by Paul Moses
A Gamble: Can Charter Schools Fix Public Education? by Bruce Fuller

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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Published in the 2009-12-04 issue: View Contents
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