Are charter schools competition for Catholic schools?

When Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., allowed the city a couple of years ago to convert several troubled Catholic schools into charter schools, many were surprised.

To save the schools, Wuerl was allowing them to give up their Catholic identity.

Now Archbishop Dolan is planning to launch a bunch of initiatives to save Catholic education in New York. He announced his intentions during a recent speech, printed as an op-ed in the NY Daily News:

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We must rediscover a sense of boldness. We’ve got to get dramatic. We’ve got to have some fresh thinking. Our new strategic initiative, Pathways to Excellence, is going to do just that. Let me give you the broad outlines of what’s to come.

First, I feel that the greatest priority of my work is to find, train and keep our principals – because if you have a first-class principal, you have a first-class school.

Second, we’re going to propose entering into partnership with our Catholic colleges and universities. Unfortunately very often we Catholics don’t have our act together, so that we don’t ask our universities to work with our high schools or high schools to work with our grade schools.

Third, we have to take a look at questions of governance. We have to ask the question of whether the current model of Catholic education is the best one. Now, most of our schools are parochial – run by a parish. More and more pastors, parents and principals are telling me that those days are over. We need a shared responsibility for recruitment, maintenance and subsidies of our schools.

Next, we need to face that some schools will probably have to close – not to cut away further at Catholic education, but to strengthen it in the long run. I’ll borrow from Jesus; he observes that the best way to get a vine to grow and grow strong is sometimes to prune back a branch.

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Notice, no word of charter schools.

The Economist magazine, of all place, notes that charter schools represent a new, secular competition for Catholic schools:

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Overwhelmed by its burdens, the Washington, DC, archdiocese converted seven of its schools to charter status in 2008. This means that the taxpayer picks up the bill and students pay nothing, but that the school can no longer operate as a religious establishment.

Could this work in New York? Archbishop Dolan rules it out, as he believes the Catholic element is what makes his schools succeed. Unfortunately for the Catholic schools, charters have adopted many of the same practices, including uniforms, discipline and the promotion of a clear set of values. That means that they have started to attract the pupils who might have gone to Catholic schools. “They are killing us,” says Sister Catherine.

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That’s Sister Catherine Hagan, the principal of St. Mark the Evangelist School in Harlem.

It’s very interesting, at least to me, that charter schools are adopting some of the qualities that have made Catholic schools unique and successful (without the Catholic part, of course).

One more aside: Dolan also wants to focus on enrolling more Hispanic kids in his schools.

In demographic terms, this would seem to be a key to the long-term health of Catholic education in New York.

Only 4 percent of Hispanic kids now attend Catholic schools, which is kind of amazing.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.