A handful of Roman Catholic schools in New York City would face the same fate as a recent batch in the District of Columbia—conversion to public charter schools—under a plan unveiled by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.
But beyond the potential for legal challenges on church-state grounds, the effort unveiled last month faces a more immediate barrier: A provision of state law, enacted in 1998, explicitly prohibits converting existing private schools into charters.
“This will require a legislative change,” said Melody L. Meyer, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education. “That’s the first step.”
The mayor, she said, was still waiting to hear from leading lawmakers about the likelihood of such a revision, and the timing.
In the District of Columbia, seven former Catholic schools reopened this past fall as charter schools, all operated by a nonprofit organization called Center City Public Charter Schools. (“Former D.C. Catholic Schools Start New Life as Charters,” Sept. 10, 2008.)
“Many Catholic schools are finding it hard to stay open because of tighter budgets and falling enrollment, even as they remain attractive to so many families because of their focus on high academic standards and high student achievement,” Mayor Bloomberg said in a Feb. 7 statement unveiling the charter-conversion plan. The effort, he added, would avoid strains to crowded public schools.
Father Kieran E. Harrington, a spokesman for the Brooklyn diocese, said enrollment in diocesan schools has plummeted over the past decade to 37,000 from 55,000. Six of 116 schools are slated to close in June, he said, and four of those may be converted to charters as soon as this fall.
“It’s important to recognize that these charters would not be Catholic schools,” he said.
Each school would be independently operated with its own board of directors, Father Harrington said. The schools would be free of religious symbols and would provide no religious instruction, he said, though the mayor has indicated that the diocese, which owns the buildings, could use the facilities outside school hours.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week