What makes Catholic schools Catholic?

Today's "daily article" from First Things--one of the preeminent Catholic journals in the country--provides a great write-up of Fordham's Catholic schools report.

Every generation lives off the cultural inheritance of its predecessors. Among that inheritance for today's American Catholics is a network of parochial schools built by their immigrant forebears, which served both to teach the faith and ground the community. But today, many of those Catholic schools in urban areas are facing a near-fatal financial crisis.

After providing an excellent overview of our findings and recommendations, the author, Mary Rose Rybak, questions our enthusiasm for Catholic schools educating non-Catholics--not to mention converting Catholic schools to charter schools as a means of keeping their doors open.

The reformers at the Fordham Foundation see Catholic schools as one answer to the problem of urban education because they are good schools. But it is worth asking a few questions: To what extent are these schools excellent because they are Catholic, in the sense that they express a commonly held worldview, center a religious community, and participate in a shared faith life? And what effect will it have on their excellence if they cease to be Catholic, in the sense of primarily educating Catholics as Catholics? Will these schools still retain their excellence?

It does appear that Catholic schools continue to provide an excellent education to non-Catholics; consider the school voucher studies that show that inner-city private schools (which means, mostly, Catholic schools) significantly outperform inner-city public schools, particularly when it comes to African-American achievement. As to whether they would retain their excellence were they to become charter schools--that's an open question. It appears that Washington, D.C. might soon provide an answer.

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