Preserving faith-based urban schools

Back in April, a trinity of events called attention to the worsening plight of America's faith-based urban schools: Pope Benedict's visit, particularly his Catholic University address; the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-based Schools; and, of course, the Fordham Institute's stellar publication, edited by Scott Hamilton, Who Will Save American's Urban Catholic Schools?.

All three pointed to a lamentable yet paradoxical situation: even as the United States properly obsesses over the weak academic achievement of poor and minority youngsters residing in our inner cities, hundreds of low-cost, high-performance inner-city schools have been closing. And all three, in their very different ways, suggested remedies for that situation.

Six months later, the White House Domestic Policy Council has brought forth a first-rate treatise on this same topic: Preserving a Critical National Asset: America's Disadvantaged Students and the Crisis in Faith-based Urban Schools. It's not just thorough, well-documented, literate and long (160 pages, though more than half of that bulk consists of edited transcripts of the April summit); it's astute, thoughtful, and in some respects, gutsy. Well worth the time, in other words, of anyone with an interest in educating poor kids or the fate of parochial schools.

In a sad sort of way, though, I feel like I'm coming full circle. Preserving repeatedly cites and quotes the 1972 report of the President's Panel on Nonpublic Education, established by Nixon in 1970 at the behest of my boss, Pat Moynihan, and initially staffed by me, in my very first grown-up job, assisting Moynihan and John Ehrlichman with White House education policy.

Unfortunately, the lesson to be drawn 36 years later is that the country pretty much ignored the 1972 warning that U.S. private schools were faltering and would close in large numbers unless bold steps were taken to reverse that sorry pattern.

A third of a century later, though private school enrollment is still about 11 percent of the K-12 total (versus 13 percent at the time of the earlier report), the urban faith-based sector (especially but not exclusively Catholic) has declined sharply.

You already knew that, of course, and you're also acquainted with some of the reasons (higher-priced teachers, rising costs, diminished Church resources, demographic shifts, competition from other "schools of choice," etc.). Though Preserving does a textbook-quality job of recapitulating all this background and explanation, its signal contribution is a twenty-page discussion of possible solutions.

No rose-tinted lenses here, however. The (anonymous) authors refrain from suggesting that any of this is self-propelled or self-fulfilling. But they cover a lot of important ground, including some tough talk to the private-school sector itself about self-improvement steps that it really needs to take. Particularly striking to me:

•  Better and more comparable assessments, including private school participation in state testing programs and alignment of instruction and curriculum with state standards.

•  Transparency about school performance (including but not limited to standardized tests) to "deflect charges that nonpublic schools want public funds without public responsibility."

•  "Faith-based urban schools and those who support them may consider a number of other avenues for evaluating performance and promoting excellence. For instance, the sector might develop broader indicators of school success (i.e. industry standards), including school safely measures, parental satisfaction figures, graduation rates, data on teacher quality....The final product might include agreed-upon standards of quality, new accreditation systems, or site inspections."

•  Better, stronger management and staffing--including professional fund-raising and public relations.

It's not all self-help, though. Also delineated here are plenty of opportunities for religious communities, individual donors, foundations and, of course, government. The latter seems especially fitting in a month when a $700 billion "bail-out" of private financial institutions seems palatable to Congress and California is seeking a loan from Washington to pay its (public) school teachers. Why not also "bail out" this threatened national education asset? 

Of course the White House document doesn't use that kind of language and isn't contemplating a massive new federal program (though it urges Congress to take seriously the George W. Bush proposal of "Pell Grants for Kids"). Its public-sector strategies include vouchers and tax credits, "weighted student funding" schemes that include private as well as public school attendees, and "faith based charter schools"--both the kind that would allow religious activity within charter schools and the kind (as in D.C.) that converts successful-but-struggling private schools into public charters.

There's plenty to chew on. What's worrying isn't the dearth of good ideas. It's the country's seeming obliviousness to this education problem. The report's closing words bear attention:

These examples represent just a fraction of the promising projects under way to help preserve faith-based urban schools. They demonstrate that great strides can be made and that support can come from all corners of America.

But a few encouraging examples and recommendations are not enough. It is worth noting that in the final report of the President's Panel on Nonpublic Education nearly four decades ago an entire section was dedicated to recommendations. Because they were not followed, though, thousands of schools have closed and millions of children have been affected in the intervening years.

What is needed now is a national commitment to act. This is the only way to guarantee that the next White House report on this subject will be in celebration of the renaissance of faith-based urban education, not in mourning for its demise.

Amen to that. And let's hope this fine report doesn't gather dust on shelves. The timing leaves much to be desired. It's emerging from a White House team that doesn't have much clout or respect these days and is about to fade into history. More full circle, alas. The earlier report appeared just a few months before Watergate began to destroy the administration that issued it. Will private schools fail to be saved because the Presidents that called for their salvation couldn't save themselves?

This article first appeared on National Review Online.

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