School Choice & Charters

D.C. Parochial Schools May Become Charters

By Erik W. Robelen & Michelle R. Davis — September 17, 2007 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Nicholas M. Wolsonovich, the superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic archdiocese in Chicago.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is eyeing an apparently novel remedy for the problems of falling enrollments and rising operating deficits for urban parochial schools: seeking to convert a group of eight Catholic campuses into secular charter schools run by an independent operator.

Archdiocesan officials say they greatly regret having to consider such a plan, which would require the approval of District of Columbia charter authorities. But if the only other option is to shut the schools down, they say, turning them into publicly funded but independently run schools may well be preferable. Most of the schools’ students come from low-income non-Catholic families.

“I think we have arrived at something that is definitely a new way of looking at serving the underserved in our poor neighborhoods,” said Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, the superintendent of schools for the Washington Archdiocese, adding that a 40-member archdiocesan panel had closely studied the situation and various alternatives for several months.

Analysts and archdiocesan officials said they were aware of no similar efforts by Catholic officials elsewhere to convert a batch of parochial schools into charters.

Chicago may be the place that comes closest. A Catholic organization runs two charters there modeled on two existing parochial schools in the city. But the charters were not converted from existing Catholic schools.

‘Joining the Competition’

One factor in the nation’s capital is the growing competition for Catholic-school students posed by the city’s burgeoning charter sector. While Washington has more of its students in charters than most cities, charter experts suggested that such an enrollment dynamic was not unique.

“I think in a number of jurisdictions, charter schools are enrolling an increasing number of students who would otherwise be going to Catholic schools,” said Todd M. Ziebarth, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Catholic Converts?

Roman Catholic officials in Washington are weighing a plan to convert eight inner-city parochial schools to charter schools. Here are key statistics for the eight schools.

BRIC ARCHIVE

* D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program
SOURCE: Archdiocese of Washington

Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City think tank, praised the Washington Archdiocese’s idea.

“It’s certainly better to turn them into charters than to let them go out of existence,” said Mr. Stern, who has written favorably of Catholic schools’ record in educating disadvantaged students. “In a way, you could say they’re joining the competition.”

All of the schools identified for conversion are running large operating deficits, even though more than four in 10 of their students receive federally funded tuition vouchers. Projections show the problem will only become worse this academic year, when the schools are expected to run about $3.7 million in the red, not counting additional administrative expenses across schools.

A final decision by the archdiocese is expected by the end of October, after consultations with the affected parishes and schools, which are either pre-K-8 or K-8. If the archdiocese decides to move forward, the schools will need to receive charters from the District of Columbia’s Public Charter School Board. The goal would be to convert the schools in time for the 2008-09 academic year.

Thomas A. Nida, the chairman of the city’s charter board, said he and his fellow board members are receptive to the idea.

“My reaction has been open-minded and positive,” he said. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity, … if we do it as successfully as we hope, that might be worthy as a model for other areas.”

Church and State

Archdiocesan officials say they hope the schools, which enroll some 1,300 students, would retain most of their staff members, strong academic focus, school culture, and promotion of moral values. But the church wouldn’t have any direct role in operating or overseeing the schools.

The archdiocese has said it would pick one operator to run all eight schools. Their facilities would be leased to the operator.

The schools are part of Washington’s 12-school Center City Consortium, an initiative the archdiocese launched in 1995 as a way to keep needy Catholic schools open and improve them by providing greater support. The other four schools in the consortium would remain Catholic campuses.

More than 7,700 students now attend 28 Roman Catholic schools in the capital city, 21 of which are operated by the archdiocese.

Several issues have played into the archdiocese’s calculations, from rising costs and declining enrollments to tuition levels that fall well short of actual expenses.

“We finally reached the breaking point,” Ms. Weitzel-O’Neill said last week.

Virtually all students at the consortium schools are heavily subsidized by church coffers or private donors. The annual tuition of $4,500 is well below the estimated operating cost of $7,500 per child.

Even students who attend the schools with vouchers under the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program Program, enacted in 2004, cost a lot to enroll. Those vouchers provide just the $4,500 tuition rate. Forty-two percent of students at the eight schools identified for charter conversion receive the vouchers.

In addition, overall enrollment in the Center City Consortium schools has dropped by nearly 20 percent in the past decade, the archdiocese says. It cites demographic shifts, including a drop in the city’s population, and the rapid rise of charter schools, which now serve an estimated 23,000 Washington students, as factors.

“We have any number of charter schools nearby, and they’re perceived as being high-quality schools,” said Monsignor Charles E. Pope, the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish, which has a school on the charter-conversion list. “They’re free, which is a huge difference.”

He added, “Little by little, we began to see some of our families drifting away [into charters].”

‘Bitter Pill’

If the conversions were to take place, the schools would likely be closely watched to ensure no church-state lines were crossed.

“If the archdiocese is simply turning these into secular schools without any religious content, there shouldn’t be any problem,” said Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based group. “But anything that’s sort of halfway or in between is going to be problematic.”

Ms. Weitzel-O’Neill, the archdiocesan superintendent, said all religious elements would be removed from the schools.

“Certainly, they will not be Catholic schools, and that’s the bitter pill,” she said.

In Chicago, a Roman Catholic organization, Catalyst Corp., runs two charters based on the model of two already existing parochial schools there run by an affiliated group, San Miguel Schools. The schools charge little or no tuition to their mostly low-income students, according to Brother Ed Siderewicz, who oversees all four schools for the two entities.

Brother Siderewicz said San Miguel Schools initially discussed remaking its existing Catholic schools into charters, but instead decided to start fresh.

“There’s an incredible amount of good being done through our two existing schools, and nobody really knows how charters are going to play out,” he said.

Nicholas M. Wolsonovich, the superintendent of the 98,200-student school system run by the Chicago archdiocese, said officials there have resisted the idea of converting low-enrollment schools to charters.

“What distinguishes our schools is the way our Catholic faith is taught and permeates instruction, discipline, everything,” he said. “A Catholic school is a Catholic school in everything that happens from seven in the morning until five and beyond.”

According to Marc Kenen, the executive director of the Boston-based Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, state law there bars parochial or other private schools from converting to charter schools.

“It’s not possible,” he said, “though we do have a bunch of charter schools that have rented facilities from the archdiocese.”

The idea of converting Catholic schools to charters was discussed a few years ago in Cleveland, where several Catholic schools have closed or merged in recent years because of low enrollment.

Margaret Lyons, the superintendent of the Cleveland Diocese’s 54,000-student school system, said diocesan officials decided against the idea for three reasons: adherence to the distinct mission of Catholic schools; a belief that funding for charter schools can be unstable; and the impact such a step could have on families whose children attend or are connected to those schools.

“The identity of a Catholic school is not just a matter of electives or taking religion classes after school,” Ms. Lyons said. “We would really forfeit all ties and controls of the school by doing that.”

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