Charter and catholic schools can coexist

I have spent years working in both Catholic and charter schools—I am Catholic, and a huge proponent and supporter of Catholic education. And I am deeply saddened by the loss of urban Catholic schools. And I certainly welcome a national conversation about how we can save them and have always appreciated Diane Ravitch's support for these critical schools.

Several factors began draining urban Catholic schools long before the first charters even opened.

But, to suggest, as Ravitch did in a recent post, that there is a direct, causal relationship between the proliferation of charters and the closing of urban Catholic schools seems to me to ignore the impact of several things that have been draining urban Catholic schools long before the first charters even opened.

For starters, it’s a well-known fact that the decline in the number of religious (nuns, priests, etc.) who are available to teach in Catholic schools is a major problem. Catholic schools long relied on the cheap labor that was supplied by nuns in particular, and now that schools have to increasingly rely on lay faculty, parishes that serve our most disadvantaged students have had a very difficult time making ends meet. This problem is obviously particular acute in urban areas where the number of Catholic families supporting the parishes has declined and where the financial need of the students served by the schools has grown considerably.

To make matters worse, though, the support for urban Catholic schools among diocesan leaders is often far too weak. In fact, there are far too many who believe that urban Catholic schools should close. There are pastors who’ve been assigned to parishes with schools who have no experience—or interest—in running a school and who see financially strapped schools as a drain on their already scarce resources. And there are too many Diocesan leaders who do not believe that keeping urban Catholic schools—which often serve far more non-Catholics than Catholics—open is a top priority.

Closing charter schools—or preventing the opening of more—will simply not turn the tide in favor of urban Catholic schools.

Of course, there are several visionary leaders around the country who believe keeping urban schools open is critical–including the late James Cardinal Hickey who famously (and inspiringly) noted that “we don’t education [urban] students because THEY are Catholic, but because WE are.” But there has been far too little movement among Catholic leadership writ large to make saving urban Catholic schools the priority it should be. (The work being done in the Archdiocese of NY to rethink school funding is, I think, very promising and may do more to help slow, or even reverse, the closing of urban schools than isolated philanthropy could do.)

To be sure, the emergence of urban charter schools has given poor parents more choices—and, frankly, more affordable choices, since many simply could not afford to continue to pay the even very low tuition that Catholic schools required. But closing charter schools—or preventing the opening of more—will simply not turn the tide in favor of urban Catholic schools. The best, or perhaps the only, way to save Catholic schools is for Catholic leaders—lay and religious alike—to make the commitment we need to keeping these schools alive. And in the meantime, closing or limiting charter options will only further limit the options available to urban parents who desperately crave better choices for their children.

This post was also submitted as a comment on Diane Ravitch's blog.

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