Conversions vs. turnarounds

I just returned from potentially one of the most portentous conferences in recent memory. If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, we may soon see big changes in the urban education landscape with major implications for tens of thousands of low-income students, charter schooling, choice, and Catholic education.

Hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives and Seton Education Partners, the event brought together about 100 people to discuss “Financing At-Risk Catholic and Faith-Based Schools: Exploring Alternatives to School Closures.” Obviously, I’m interested in this subject, and for some time, I’ve been trying to get others to realize that, given the paucity of great schools in urban America, it makes no sense to allow any high-performing, inner-city schools to disappear. But heading into the conference, I wasn’t so sure what could be accomplished. Those toiling in these fields already know about scholarships, vouchers, and tax credits; what could more palaver contribute?

While those subjects were discussed--including a compelling presentation by Scott Jensen of the Alliance for School Choice--the bigger story turned out to be everyone’s deep interest in the subject of converting struggling Catholic and other faith-based schools into charters.

I recently completed a long case study of the conversion of seven DC Catholic schools into charters, so I was up to speed on the subject and aware of the quiet interest of a number of dioceses in learning more. What I didn’t realize was just how many--and how strongly--Catholic education leaders and supporters have gotten behind this idea.

To be clear, this is a thorny matter and stakeholders understand exactly what’s at stake. Big philosophical questions are involved, including what this suggests about the future of the largest and longest-lasting sector of private education, and what it would do to diversity in K-12 schooling. There are tricky policy issues here, too, such as what’s allowed under various state charter laws and the federal charter schools program, not to mention the influence of mass school conversions on the broader choice movement.

Those contemplating this course of action also have to take into account countless implementation challenges, including parental and community resistance, political pressure, special education, teacher certification, changes in student enrollment, facilities, and much more (these are discussed at length in the DC case study).

Despite all this, two realities continued pushing participants forward. First, the current financial model of urban Catholic education is broken. Second, unless something is done, the well being of many, many needy girls and boys will be in serious jeopardy.

Walking out of the conference, one couldn’t help but sense--despite understandable misgivings--that we could see many more school conversions in the not-too-distant future.  So the question for the education- reform community is, “What to do about it?”

That issue deserves a thorough, thoughtful treatment--more than can be offered here. But two matters stand out for immediate consideration. First, the U.S. Department of Education needs to get engaged quickly. Lots of kids, lots of schools, and lots of communities are going to be affected. The Department has numerous points of entry: the Office of Non-Public Education, the Office of Innovation and Improvement, the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the Charter Schools Grant Program, etc.

Secretary Duncan and his lieutenants must wrestle with a number of policy questions. Can or should states address this issue in Race to the Top applications? Will the Department accept and fairly consider innovation-fund proposals on this issue? Can School Improvement Grants be used? What’s the role of charter school start-up grants?

To date, the Duncan team has been mute on the matter of urban faith-based schools. To my knowledge, the Secretary hasn’t even visited one of these schools during his tenure. Now that a growing number of conversions lie ahead, ignoring the issue is becoming less of an option.

Second, public and private sources alike may want to rethink their allocation of resources going forward. An alternative--or at least a complement--to trying to fix persistently failing schools is helping to preserve already-successful schools. So rather than raising a “turnaround fund,” philanthropy could raise a charter conversion fund. Rather than committing precious human capital to turnarounds, direct these talented teachers and school heads toward workable conversions. Given the miserable track record of turnarounds over decades, it’s worth asking, “Which is likelier to generate high-quality seats for disadvantaged urban students: attempts at turning around chronic failures or sustaining proven successes?

I admit to being torn over some of the large philosophical questions raised by the potential of mass school conversions. But I’m confident of two things: Such conversions are on the way, and, if done right, they hold lots of promise for kids in need.

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