School Choice & Charters

Catholic Closures Linked to Growth of City Charters

By Scott J. Cech — February 12, 2008 7 min read
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Whether the proliferation of charter schools in urban areas is fueling the demise of inner-city Roman Catholic schools is not a new question. But it came into sharp focus following last month’s State of the Union address, in which President Bush said faith-based schools “are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America’s inner cities.”

In his speech to Congress, the president called for a White House “summit” meeting on inner-city children and religious schools. Ironically, some analysts say, charter schools, which the Bush administration has strongly supported, may have effectively helped undermine Catholic schools—the nation’s largest provider of faith-based education.

Among those listening to the speech from the House galleries was the Rev. Ronald J. Nuzzi, the director of the Alliance for Catholic Education leadership program at the University of Notre Dame, who has called charters “one of the biggest threats to Catholic schools in the inner city, hands down.”

“An unintended consequence—that’s probably the most politically sensitive way to put it,” Father Nuzzi said about the erosion of Catholic-school enrollment. “For the most part, when you offer an alternative to the mainstream [public] school free of charge, it can be a threat to Catholic schools, which charge tuition.”

Father Nuzzi noted that Catholic school tuition, once very low, has had to increase over the years, and now runs thousands of dollars a year. The increased tuition, he said, is needed to pay for lay teachers, who earn salaries much closer to public school teachers’ than the pay provided the teaching nuns of decades past. Charter schools are public, and therefore tuition-free.

Ups and Downs

Not that Catholic schools will disappear anytime soon. In the 2006-07 school year, the latest one for which data are available from the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association, or NCEA, there were more than 2.3 million K-12 students in about 7,500 U.S. Catholic schools.

That’s almost twice the number of students in the nation’s 4,100 charter schools this school year, as estimated by the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that promotes school choice.

But charters have grown fast since the first state charter law was passed in 1991, while Catholic-school enrollments have continued to decline.

In 1965, the numerical high-water mark for Catholic education in the United States, 13,000 Catholic schools nationwide served 5.5 million students. Since 2000, when the NCEA first began tracking urban and nonurban schools separately, urban Catholic schools in the United States have lost 20 percent of their enrollment, or 187,283 students.

Just in the past four years, said Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy for the NCEA, 344 urban Catholic schools have closed. Of those, she noted, “315 are elementary, and that’s where your big problem is,” since they feed into Catholic secondary schools.

One twist on the trend can be seen in the Archdiocese of Washington. At the prompting of archdiocesan leaders concerned about costs, seven financially strapped Catholic schools in the nation’s capital are in the process of trying to convert to charter schools. (“D.C. Parochial Schools May Become Charters,” Sept. 19, 2007.)

“The cynics say charters are throwing Catholic schools under the bus,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform. “A better way to look at it is, charters are making it possible for communities to have high-quality schools [in areas] that would otherwise lose them.”

For Catholic parents, tuition is a key factor, a 2006 NCEA report suggests. The national study, performed from 2000 to 2005 by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, found that, among a randomized sample of about 1,400 parents with school-age children who attended Catholic services, 44 percent reported that insufficient tuition aid was “somewhat” or “very much” a problem.

Among Catholic parents who do not live in an area with a voucher or scholarship program, the study reported, 80 percent said they would use such a program if it were available.

A 2006 study of enrollment dynamics in private and charter schools in Michigan found that charter schools drew enrollment from public and private schools at nearly the same rate between 1994—the year before the state’s first charter school opened—and 1999. But because only about 8 percent of students in the state attended private schools in that period, private schools’ enrollment was hit disproportionately hard, losing one student for every three that charter schools gained.

The study’s lead author, Eugenia F. Toma, a professor of public policy and administration at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, said the results took her and her co-authors aback.

“Going into it, we just expected they’d be pulled from other public schools—we were surprised to see they pulled more from private schools,” said Ms. Toma, who plans to release the first results of a national version of the study in April, of the charter-enrollment findings.

Nationwide, she said, “we don’t know if this pattern will hold up.” But should the Michigan dynamic manifest itself across the country, she added, “if I were an administrator in a Catholic school, I would probably be concerned.”

‘Nothing Inevitable’

A 2007 report focusing on Arizona takes a different view, noting a 2 percent increase in Catholic-school enrollment in the Diocese of Phoenix from 2004 to 2006, and the opening of two new Catholic schools in the 2006-07 school year. That rise took place even though the city of Phoenix has more than 100 charter schools, according to state data.

“The bottom line is, there’s nothing inevitable about charter schools’ being the end of inner-city Catholic schools, but it’s very important that we take measures to make more of a level playing field,” said the report’s author, Matthew Ladner, the vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank that supports school choice.

The difference between Catholic schools’ fortunes in Arizona and Michigan, Mr. Ladner said, can be substantially credited to Arizona laws that allow taxpayers and corporations to receive state-income-tax credits for charitable contributions to foundations that provide scholarships to private schools. In the 2006-07 school year, 24,678 Arizona students received such scholarships, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Mr. Ladner said Arizona’s example shows that Catholic and charter schools “can peaceably coexist, but we have to do some things on the private school side” to make the former more affordable.

Jonah Liebert, an assistant director at the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, located at Teachers College, Columbia University, said Mr. Ladner’s study, which he called “almost entirely anecdotal,” didn’t sufficiently take into account the large differences between Arizona and Michigan in population-growth, income, and employment trends.

President Bush’s State of the Union proposal to provide “Pell Grants for Kids”—a $300 million federal grant program to support private-school-scholarship programs for low-income students in low-performing schools—could theoretically narrow the cost gap between charter and Catholic schools, Mr. Liebert said. And Arizona-style tax credits would also likely help, he added.

Still, he said “it is pretty clear that charter schools represent a threat to Catholic-school enrollment.”

When asked, in light of the Michigan and Arizona studies, whether the Bush administration’s advocacy and financial support of charter schools may have unintentionally eroded the viability of Catholic education in some cities, Education Department press secretary Samara Yudof said in an e-mail that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and the Bush administration “support high-quality educational options and choice for all families, regardless of where they live—whether those choices are public traditional, magnet, charter, or private.”

“While the number of charter schools has certainly grown, there will continue to be educational consumers [who] value the distinctive quality of a Catholic education,” the statement continued. “Catholic schools have provided the moral cornerstone of many inner-city neighborhoods, and their closures represent a great loss to the moral fabric of the neighborhood, and the broader community.”


Todd M. Ziebarth, the state-policy director for the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, noted that the relationship between charter and Catholic-school enrollment isn’t a zero-sum proposition.

“I think it’s really easy to scapegoat charters” as the cause of Catholic-school closures, he said. “Urban Catholic schools have been losing students since long before charters were around.”

Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder and co-director of the Washington think tank Education Sector, agreed. “Catholic schools are losing students in areas where there aren’t any charter schools,” he said. “If you’re for parent choice, you have to respect what they’re choosing, and parents are voting with their feet.”

Sister McDonald, whom the White House called soon after the State of the Union address for input on the planned summit on faith-based education this spring, doesn’t disagree.

“We try to be … positive about this,” she said. “We don’t see the charter school as competition. If that’s what parents want, they have the right to choose something other than us. … We have to support that.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Catholic Closures Linked to Growth of City Charters


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