Time for more generous vouchers and Catholic charter schools

It is, perhaps, no longer news to see yet another 1.5 percent decline in Catholic school enrollment in the United States. However, two separate but related facts make this year’s annual statistical report from the National Catholic Educational Association more troubling.

1.    Charter enrollment exceeded Catholic school enrollment for the first time this school year (in 2011–12, each sector had about the same number of students). Catholic school enrollment dropped 1.5 percent to 2,001,740 students, while charter school enrollment increased 13 percent to 2,326,542 students. From here on, any graph plotting student numbers in each sector likely will look like a pair of open scissors.

2.    A recent report from U.S. Census Bureau researcher Stephanie Ewert shows that private school enrollment is negatively associated with charter school enrollment. This is similar to what economist Richard Buddin found in his report last year for the Cato Institute when he looked at charter and private school enrollment trends from 2000 to 2008. Ewert looks at more recent years and found that states with substantial increases in charter school enrollment experienced substantial decreases in private school enrollment—particularly at Catholic schools.

Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships have surely offset some of those shifting patterns (Buddin noted that 190,000 students left private schools for charter schools between 2000 and 2008, but about that same number got public aid for private schools by the end of that time period). Most of those private-school-choice programs, however, are so limited in scope, their vouchers so limited in value, that they can’t slow the migration forever.

No one should expect charter schools to stop trying to fill their seats—even if that means drawing students from Catholic schools. And no one should believe that Catholic schools would once again thrive in the absence of charters schools alone; the downward slide of Catholic schools started long before the nation’s first charter school law passed in 1991.

But because charters and Catholic schools share similar traits and comparable missions in serving inner-city, low-income youth, there ought to be equal opportunities for each sector to thrive. Two policy changes would help: Removing the caps that limit the size and value of most school voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs and establishing religious charter schools.

The latter is, admittedly, the more controversial and eye-opening, for it allows Catholic and parochial schools to convert to charter status and keep the crucifix on the wall. But the idea is not so far-fetched. It’s based on the same premise that has secured constitutional protections for school vouchers. The 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris ultimately determined that the Cleveland voucher program was “neutral in all respects toward religion,” even though 96 percent of all voucher recipients then attended a religious school. The justices ruled that parents had been able to exercise “genuine choice” in where to use their vouchers. Families chose the school, not the state.    

A similar principal undergirds charter schooling, which—as charter pioneer Ted Kolderie once explained—transferred the attendance decision from system to student. But, of course, there’s more to it than that. Charter schools are public schools. So what would a Catholic charter school look like?

It would be part of the same accountability system required of other public schools, which means it would publicly report test scores and face closure if those results are consistently poor. It also would have an open admissions policy and adhere to civil rights and special education laws. The biggest difference is that it could continue to exercise the spiritual and holistic approach to education that has driven so much of the success in Catholic schooling.

As charters are supposed to have greater autonomy in the way they do business, there is less fear of “government entanglement,” as identified by another Supreme Court decision on the Establishment Clause, Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). In that case, the court found that two school-aid packages that benefitted private schools were unconstitutional because they required constant government monitoring to make sure that public money was going only to secular purposes. There should be no such monitoring of the Catholic charter school, which should enjoy maximum autonomy in mission and operation in exchange for results-based accountability (just as there should be for all charter schools).

Before critics object that taxpayers shouldn’t be compelled to fund a religious education, it should be noted that we already have sixteen voucher programs nationally that direct funds from state treasuries to families to help offset the cost of a private (mostly religious) education (a freedom guaranteed by federal and state courts alike). There are two problems: Many of these private school choice programs have legislatively imposed caps on the number of students who may participate, and the value of the vouchers is often paltry. The average voucher last year was worth just $5,686; the average tax credit scholarship was worth $2,534.

Neither of those artificial limitations do much to help the low-income child squeezed out of a Catholic education. Lifting those caps and raising those voucher amounts could lay the groundwork for a grand bargain: More transparency and accountability in exchange for more (or more generous) scholarships. As the Fordham Institute’s recent report on voucher regulations showed, Catholic schools are little deterred by regulations and are more interested in maintaining their mission in serving the poor.

The alternative to these proposals is the continued downward spiral of what has long been the heart and soul of urban private education. Charters and Catholic schools can coexist, but not without smarter public policies that recognize—and reward—the valuable contributions Catholic education has made to the larger community.

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