Why not Catholic charter schools?

The holidays are here just in time, because seven of the District of Columbia's inner-city Catholic schools are in need of a Christmas miracle. Like their peers nationwide, they face a crippling financial crisis that threatens to bring their heralded work to an end.

Though indisputably a crisis, it's no surprise. The basic problem has been worsening for decades as middle-class families decamped for the suburbs, leaving weakened parishes and disadvantaged children behind, even as education costs rose. To their great credit, the Catholic schools continued to serve students in the Washington community, as did their counterparts in many other cities, even though, by and large, their parents couldn't afford the modest tuition, nor did many of them share the faith. But as Washington's legendary Cardinal James Hickey once said, "We don't educate these children because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic." And not only did the church open its door to poor children from all walks of life, it succeeded in providing many of them with a top-rate education. Studies consistently show urban Catholic schools outperforming similar public schools--and even other types of private schools--because of their no-nonsense approach to curriculum, firm but loving discipline, dedicated teachers, and high expectations for all.

Of late, however, competition from public charter schools, as well as the fiscal toll of the church's sex-abuse scandal, have combined to threaten the already-fragile balance sheets of these treasured community institutions.

To its credit, the Archdiocese of Washington has proposed a highly imaginative solution that will keep these schools open, though no longer Catholic: It will turn them over to a secular non-profit organization to manage as public charter schools. Rather than offering Catholic instruction, they will provide a "values-based" education, along with a solid academic curriculum. It's a solution, yes, but far from a perfect one. As Holy Comforter teacher Courtney Pullen told the Washington Post about her young charges, "They're going to miss being able to pray and talk about religion." The schools' spiritual mission has guided and inspired their educational mission; whether the latter will collapse without the former is an open question.

Converting the seven schools into secular charters is certainly better than closing them. But why are we forcing such a painful choice? Here's a more promising idea: Turn the "Saintly Seven" into public charter schools--and keep them Catholic, too. In other words, allow for religious public schools.

Wouldn't this violate the Constitution's establishment clause, which prohibits the government from endorsing religion? Probably not. In its 2002 decision upholding Cleveland's school voucher program--whose funds overwhelmingly flowed via families into Catholic schools--the Supreme Court decreed the education plan neutral toward religion because it was part of Ohio's "general and multifaceted undertaking to provide educational opportunities to children in a failed school district." Low-income parents could take advantage of the voucher program to send their children to religious schools, but they also had plenty of secular options, including regular public schools, magnet schools, and charter schools.

That would be the case in the District, too. The addition of seven Catholic charter schools wouldn't dramatically change the menu of educational options in D.C., with its 97 other charter schools and 187 traditional public schools. Parents who don't want a Catholic education for their children would have plenty of other free, public options.

But what about taxpayers? Why should they have to pay for religious education that might conflict with their own beliefs and values? It's an unimportant question in this case, because the public already pays for religious education in the District through the federally funded voucher program--and gets little in return by way of accountability for results. (All of us also subsidize both secular and sectarian instruction at Notre Dame, Yeshiva, and other religious universities.) But were Catholic schools welcomed into the public charter school fold, they would have to agree to public reporting of test scores, an open admissions policy, and adherence to civil rights and special education laws. From where I sit, that's a better deal for the public than school vouchers.

Allowing religious charter schools in the District would require a change to the District's charter school law, and thus an act of Congress--no small political feat. So here's a chance for Democrats and Republicans--including those running for president--to show that they care about poor children and appreciate the Catholic Church's longstanding social justice mission in inner-city neighborhoods. And if that's not enough, helping to save these schools might curry favor with the country's Catholic swing voters, too. Which just goes to show that doing good can also be good for you--especially in this season of giving. (Read more about religious charter schools here and here.)

A version of this article appeared in the December 4th Washington Times.

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