Leaders at a private Roman Catholic school in St. Louis are preparing for a big change: They are planning to give up the inner-city institution’s religious identity to become a public charter school, so they can serve more low-income families.
The reason is financial. De La Salle Middle School—which now serves about 70 students and has a focus on getting disadvantaged students on track for college—will have access to public funding.
Although such conversions to charter status are rare, a number of Roman Catholic schools have done so in recent years. Often, the move is sparked by a concern that otherwise the school would have to close.
A report issued this spring by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice examined the experience of 18 former Catholic schools in three metropolitan areas—Indianapolis, Miami, and Washington—that turned into charters between 2008 and 2010. It found that enrollment increased dramatically after the change, as did the proportion of minority students served.
Several experts said they were not aware of data identifying how many Catholic or other private schools have converted to charters. And, in fact, it appears the volume has slowed as the economy has improved. In New Jersey, a pair of non-Catholic private schools recently applied to become charters next school year, though only one was approved by the state.
Michael McShane, a co-author of the Friedman report and a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, called converting to charters “part of the toolbox of options” for struggling Catholic schools. “It’s not that you convert every school to a charter school, but you convert some to make it more viable for the others” in a diocese to remain open as Catholic schools.
At the same time, the report from the Friedman Foundation, an Indianapolis-based research and advocacy group that promotes school choice, including vouchers, said a side effect of charter conversions was that the menu of school types available to families was narrowed.
At the De La Salle school in St. Louis, where tuition is heavily subsidized by private sources, the school’s president, Corey Quinn, said switching to a charter will enable the school to fulfill a Catholic-inspired mission through a secular vehicle.
“What we hope to do is take our fundraising efforts and couple it with the funds from the state to serve as many students as we can,” he said. “Saint John Baptist De la Salle is the patron saint of teachers. His mission was to bring education to the poor, which is our mission.”
However, efforts to convert Catholic schools to charters have raised eyebrows in religious communities and school-choice circles since the practice gained serious attention over the past six years or so. Among the critics is Sister Carol Cimino, the schools superintendent for the Buffalo, N.Y., diocese.
“It’s not good news for the Catholic schools,” she said. “Charter schools try to be Catholic school-like: uniforms, local control, a lot of parental involvement, a little more rigor in their curriculum.”
She said, “They take the veneer of a Catholic education: What’s lost is the ability to tell a child to respect others because we’re all created by God.”
The reasons that schools switch often center on financial challenges, caused in part by dwindling student enrollment.
From 2004 to 2014, U.S. Catholic school enrollment dropped by 23 percent, to fewer than 2 million students, compared with 5.2 million at the pinnacle of such enrollment in the 1960s, according to data compiled by the National Catholic Educational Association, based in Arlington, Va. The decline is even more pronounced in urban areas, where a combination of changing demographics, rising tuition, and increased competition from free, public charter schools is exacting its toll on inner-city Catholic schools.
Uptick in Enrollment
The Friedman study used publicly available data to track pre- and post-transition enrollment trends. The Catholic schools examined were losing an average of 7.3 students per year, while the charter schools that opened in their places gained an average of 34.4 students per year. The proportion of minority students enrolled also increased over a time period of two to four years.
To be considered what the study calls a “sector switcher,” the charter school had to open in the closed Catholic school the following school year, the charter needed to retain some staff and students from the former Catholic school, and church leaders needed to be involved in the decision and transition process. In addition to a larger and more diverse student body, the newly minted charter schools also receive public funding and, in some cases, upgrades in staff benefits and school facilities.
Such was the case for Mater Beach Academy in Miami Beach, Fla., formerly St. Joseph’s Parish school, which converted to charter status over the summer of 2010.
“We have computers in all of our classrooms, they put in Promethean boards for all the teachers to use, they painted the basketball courts, they put new turf on the soccer field,” said Rachel Hutchison, who stayed on as a kindergarten teacher after the school became a charter. During the school’s final two months as a Catholic school, Ms. Hutchison said, her classroom didn’t have air conditioning.
“They just couldn’t keep up with the things that needed to be taken care of in the building,” she said.
But for many Catholic educators and academics, the pros and cons add up to a mixed blessing at best. Although the revenue from renting a building to a charter often helps prop up the remaining schools in a diocese, there are bigger issues to contend with, said the Rev. Ronald J. Nuzzi, the director of the Alliance for Catholic Education, based at the University of Notre Dame, near South Bend, Ind. Echoing the Friedman Foundation study, he said replacing urban Catholic schools with charters reduces the choices available.
“When that choice is fully funded, it makes for fairer market competition. A parent can choose a charter school, a Catholic school, a public school,” said Father Nuzzi, who points to voucher and tax-credit programs, which allow qualifying students to use public money or tax-income credits for tuition at private schools. “In Milwaukee and Indiana, ... leasing to charters or converting to them are no longer active questions because the local laws have been about, ‘let’s empower parents.’”
Indiana created a state voucher program in 2011, while Milwaukee’s dates back to 1990.
Legal Nuts and Bolts
But church leaders in places where such programs don’t exist or the funding is seen as insufficient face difficult decisions about how to sustain schools in economically depressed areas, as was the case in the District of Columbia in 2008. That year, the Archdiocese of Washington shut down six Catholic schools through an agreement that they would reopen under a new charter management organization the following school year with some students and staff remaining.
Although the Washington archdiocese was deeply involved in the transition, its relationship now with the schools is seen as no more than that between a landlord and tenant.
The case in Washington was the focus of a 2009 study commissioned by Seton Education Partners, a group that promotes Catholic education for disadvantaged youths. Its author, Andy Smarick, now a partner at Bellwether Education, a Washington consulting group, said the process was successful for three main reasons: careful attention to the legal nuts and bolts of converting; close collaboration with the charter authorizer; and an emphasis on maintaining a values-driven approach, though a secular one.
That last item kept staff and families invested in the schools. “Religion is a load-bearing wall,” Mr. Smarick said. “They realized that wall had to come down, but they had to put something up in its place.”
For example, rather than a morning prayer, the schools held a morning meeting. Instead of lessons based on the Bible, they were based on 10 core values. “Because they replaced those things with good proxies, a lot of the families stayed,” Mr. Smarick said.
School leaders at De La Salle in St. Louis first hatched the idea of converting to a charter five years ago, “when we were in a really tough place financially,” said Mr. Quinn, the president. Even though De La Salle’s financial ship has righted since then, Mr. Quinn and the board have remained committed to converting the school into a charter by fall 2015.
They realized they could expand with public dollars in a way that was not possible with fundraising alone. The school anticipates receiving up to $10,000 per student in public funds as a charter. Currently, it costs De La Salle about $16,000 a year to educate a student, but the school only charges families between $50 and $150 a month in tuition, Mr. Quinn said. (Most students at De La Salle Middle School come from low-income families, and all are African-American.)
For Mr. Quinn, the plan to become a charter is all about evolving.
“The Catholic school system in the United States was largely a response to anti-Catholic bigotry in the 1800s,” he said. “I feel we are being called to adapt again to today’s educational context.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as From Catholic to Charter: Conversion of Schools Draws Scrutiny